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Mavis! soars because of its lovely, legendary subject

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When we talk about the types of artists who have transcended decade and genre, a few mononymous examples come to mind: Bowie, Prince, Madonna. But a new HBO documentary makes the case that another name should be added to that pantheon: Mavis!

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Jessica Edwards’ feature-length documentary debut is a straightforward profile of the great Mavis Staples, lead vocalist of The Staple Singers and one of the world’s greatest-ever vocalists. Her deep, husky voice gave The Staple Singers a sense of depth and emotion, even at a young age. It leaves an indelible mark on her audience’s soul, full of pure emotion that travels from her diaphragm and bursts out of her throat with a force that most singers only dream of possessing. The group—led by her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, and featuring a revolving lineup of her brother and sisters—may have been called called The Staple Singers, but Mavis was its true vocal anchor. If you haven’t seen them singing alongside The Band in The Last Waltz, you’ve missed out on one of the most beautiful musical performances ever committed to film.

So why isn’t Mavis mentioned in the same breath as the Bowies, Princes, and Madonnas of the world? Perhaps it’s because her output isn’t as a prolific—Mavis! tells of aborted albums and unreleased collaborations. Maybe it’s because she started singing gospel but has never gone fully secular, unlike the first-name-basis First Lady Of Soul. Regardless, Mavis! shows that its subject is still vital and energetic, with a true love of performance and creation. After a concert shown in the documentary, the crowd erupts in applause. The camera moves backstage as Staplesor “Ms. Mavis” as doc interviewee Chuck D calls herwaits until she can go back out to her relatively small, but adoring group of fans. “Do you want to wait a little bit longer?” her tour manager asks. Clearly itching to appease the source of the adulation she can hear from the wings, Staples replies: “Wait a little bit longer and they might stop.”

It seems odd to point out that Staples is Mavis!’s greatest asset. It’s her name on the poster, and the documentary debuts just weeks after the release of her 14th solo studio album, Livin’ On A High Note. Onscreen, she is warm and sweet. She’s the type of person you want to watch because she’s the type of person you want to hang out with, a feeling that only increases as she reunites with the The Band’s Levon Helm for a jam. (Helm passed away in 2012.) When she remembers working alongside Bob Dylan (the Staple Singers covered “Blowin’ In The Wind”), she giggles, reminiscing about a rejected proposal from Dylan and confessing to some “smooches.” In another moment, she discusses Prince calling to discuss a collaboration. She denied knowing royalty when Pops told her about the call. “Mavis, it’s the one they call ‘Purple,’” he said.

While Mavis! emanates affability, that general sweetness tends to gloss over the rough bits of Staples’ life. It’s not as if a documentary needs to be steeped in tragedy, but there’s a sense that Edwards never fully got her subject to open up. Mavis! is a straightforward biography. There are hints of difficultyhow Staples was treated in the ’50s and ’60s as a black woman on the road; a desire to have children that never came to fruition—but those are touched upon rather than discussed. There’s little vulnerability shown on Staples’ part—unless she’s singing. Maybe that’s all she needs. “I’ll stopping singing when I have nothing to say,” she says. “And y’know, that ain’t never going to happen.”

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