Sympathetic characters are often what turn good music documentaries into great ones, yet few hit the level of congeniality that director Jessica Edwards captures in her heart-warming portrait of soul legend Mavis Staples. Mavis! follows a welcome trend — most notably in Searching for Sugar Man and 20 Feet From Stardom — of music docs in which the appeal of personality and story supersede fame. Among a collection of stand-out biographies that premiered at South by Southwest, Mavis! was the feel-good star, a story of survival, family, change and adapting to it.
Mavis! embraces the singer’s history — back to the early 1950s when she started in Chicago churches with her father Pops and siblings in The Staple Singers – and connects it to her place in music today. Edwards rightfully aims to present the 75-year-old in the pantheon of greats, one whose journey started long before The Staples Singers’ secular soul hits in the ’70s. Performance footage — gospel clips in black and white, ’70s TV shows, a recent Newport Folk Festival gig — points to the singularity of Staples’ vocal power and interpretive skill.
In the last several years, Staples’ career has been boosted through her work with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and the film lovingly shows how he has created a surrogate musical family for Staples, one that allows her to create with a level of comfort similar to the one she enjoyed with her late father. There is no villain in Mavis! — only hope and thankfulness that glow from start to finish.