By the end of this film my arm was numb because it had been in a “praise Jesus” position for about 80 minutes.
I initially went into this film thinking that I didn’t know any songs by The Staple Singers. But then, “I’ll Take You There” began to play and I thought, ohhhh I know you my old familiar friend.
Mavis! follows the history of legendary gospel singer Mavis Staples and her family. As children in the late 1940s, Mavis, her siblings Cleotha, Yvonne, Pervis and her Pops, all formed a singing group called The Staple Singers.
Yes, her brother’s name is Pervis, I may have giggled just a little too much at that.
As you can guess from the title, the film focuses mainly on Mavis as she continues to sing well into her late 70s. It’s layered with themes of family, gospel, church, the African American community and the love of music—all types of music.
Mavis and her sister Yvonne, are the only surviving members of the group. Yvonne often joins Mavis on tours to this day and you can feel the deep history and respect between them. One incredibly touching moment happens in the film when the two sisters look through their family photo album remembering their father. Mavis credited her sister for helping her survive after their father’s death. They share a look that lingers between the two of them. It was a look of “I got you” and it was lovely.
The Staple Singers were witness to great change in American culture and the music scene. During the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-1950s and early 1960s, The Staple Singers stood up to the injustice and mistreatment of African Americans. Pops was the most vocal of the group and became notorious in the music industry for having walked hand in hand with Martin Luther King during peaceful protests. Their activism during this time of social angst will remain a huge part of their legacy.
This movie reminded me of 20 Feet from Stardom, which focuses on singers that were shadowed by some of the most successful musical acts in history. It seems that the The Staple Singers were similar. They were vocally unique but never made the BIG time. I suppose that there’s a place for everything and everyone. The Staple Singers seem content with where they are in history.
These days, Mavis may need a cane to help her walk, but nothing, not even age, can touch her visceral, deep, angelic voice. As one music producer in the film says, “I love Aretha Franklin, but she ain’t got nothing on Mavis.” Aretha Franklin is known all over the world as the queen of soul and yet Mavis can beat her in a soul sister sing-off.
As I watched Mavis perform on stage, I could imagine it was like going to church. There was something quite holy about the entire experience. Mavis engages with the crowd as if she were a preacher and the audience her loyal followers. In her deep gravelly voice she shouts “now we have come this evening to bring you some joy, some happiness, inspiration and some positive vibrations”. I’m not a religious person, but if I witnessed Mavis preaching, I’d imagine it’d be hard not to join her following.
Mavis! made me want to sing at the top of my lungs even if I have the voice of a dying cat. It captured me from the very beginning. There was not phone or nail file in sight. I was completely absorbed and held tight until the credits rolled.