HBO Documentary Films: MAVIS!

By Jef Dinsmore on Mar 3, 2016 to Documentaries




Overview: The first feature-length documentary on gospel/soul music legend and civil rights icon Mavis Staples and her family group, the Staple Singers. From the delta-inflected gospel sound she helped pioneer in the 1950s, to the “message songs” of the civil rights era marching beside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to massive hits such as “I’ll Take You There” in the soul-filled Stax era, and her recent Grammy-winning work with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Mavis Staples is one of the most influential and enduring vocalists of our time and a true American icon.



Expectations: It is simple. I expect some great music out of this one. I can appreciate the gospel sounds and tight harmonies from the Staple Singers. Along the way a great interview and stories to help tell the story of Mavis and her career. It should be a treat.  


Gut Reaction: Good Lord Almighty, was that an understatement. It went way beyond just being a treat. It was fun and uplifting. When was the last time I described a documentary as fun? Mavis! delivered the same attitude that Mavis Staples herself stated at a concert in the film – “we’ve come to bring you joy, inspiration & some positive vibrations,” and she and the film about her did just that.

This career of Mavis and The Staple Singers is an interesting tale in itself. A church family grown up in gospel music and deciding to take it on the road. A great story about a happy, talented family with songs to uplift and Mavis was the lead vocal. What a unique, voice she possesses; it gets into your soul.Docs_MavisStaplesRecord

Now, though I don’t buy and avidly listen to many genres of music I do have an appreciation and respect for all types. I’m a long haired rock-n-roll boy, but the gospel and later soul sounds coming from this gal and her family were exceptional and powerful. I could not get enough of the clips featuring their performances. The documentary is ample in that regard. It is also great timing that HBO airs MAVIS! and the same time as they present the drama series VINYL because the two help complement each other. Hell, this past episode of VINYL even had a Staple Singers song in it. Part of the story in the documentary gives insight to the record contracts the Staples brood dealt with in the 1970’s with Stax Records. It makes it more interesting to hear about it when you put it in perspective with what we witness in VINYL. It was at that time that the Gospel group “sold out” and got a record deal and turned to Soul and even dappled in Disco and charted their first hit. It was cool to see them with Dick Clark on American Bandstand and with Don Cornelius on Soul Train (two shows I remember from my youth).   

Lastly, you got to talk about Mavis Staples herself. At one point in the extensive interviews they did with her she mentions she was 79 and going strong. This woman is a force. Through the grace of God she stays strong to deliver her message of freedom, equality, happiness and positivity that seems unrivaled. Even Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, Prince and Jeff Tweedy are in awe. She and her sister Yvonne, content as a background singer, are still performing their message 60+ years later. Take in this documentary and feel the positive vibrations and the power of MAVIS!


In Conclusion: I wish I could have offered a bonus this week of HBO having a little interview with Mavis Staples, but she does offer a lot of interview time in the documentary. MAVIS! is a highlight in 2016 for me. I was always aware of The Staple Singers, but now a deeper appreciation has developed because of this. The documentary title is warranted more than one exclamation point and is well worth the 82 minutes of sharing Mavis’ energy.

Now, I’d be remiss without some Pops Staples and family so here you go.


Next:  The 2016 Academy Award winning Best Documentary Short Subject A GIRL IN THE RIVER: THE PRICE OF FORGIVENESS debuts March 07 at 9:00pm.

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