"A portrait emerges not just of a remarkable woman but of the times through which she has lived."

Although she has never quite achieved the reputation and visibility in the UK that she has in the US, Mavis Staples is a figure whose force of personality - not to mention her talent as a singer - can grab anyone's attention. Jessica Edwards' meandering yet joyful documentary provides a great introduction for newcomers but has lots to offer for fans.

It's built from a combination of archive materials and interviews; Edwards has assembled an impressive number of contributors for the latter. As well as talking about Mavis herself (who is also present, and irrepressible), they talk about her family, about musical development across the many decades during which she has performed, and about the political movements that influenced her work and gradually drew her in as a campaigner. There's footage of the young Bob Dylan, who performed alongside her and went on to woo her, though she confesses she was too naive to understand the seriousness of his intent. Through these stories, a portrait emerges not just of a remarkable woman but of the times through which she has lived.

Copy picture

What makes this so affecting is its personal character. Mavis' deep love for her father and her feeling that, musically, she owes er whole carer to him, comes through clearly. This makes for some tearful moments but the general atmosphere is one of relentless positivity drawn from Mavis' joy in expressing herself onstage, something it seems likely she would be doing even if she didn't have such a powerful voice. Coming from strongly religious background, she's modestly dressed much of the time, which highlights the fact that her charisma doesn't depend on her sexuality. Unlike most women who rose to prominence in the Sixties, she was never promoted on the basis of her looks, and it's latterly that she has started dressing more glamorously, with sequinned dresses emphasising her confidence and fierceness in her Seventies. Edwards captures a lot of laughter and Mavis' sense of fun is infectious.

There's also a lot of music in this film, including several numbers from different periods in Mavis' career played all the way through, enjoyable in their own right and interesting as illustrations of her creative development. They include material written for her by Prince, someone she must never have expected to outlive, and she's clearly amazed that he even knew who she was. This helps to illustrate her importance to American music and culture, especially in regard to the protest music that was her contribution to the civil rights struggle. Edwards doesn't always succeed in making these various threads cohere but she has nevertheless produced a rich and entertaining film.

Reviewed on: 23 May 2016
Share this with others on...
Story of Mavis Staples, whose group the Staple Singers helped fuel the civil rights movement.

Director: Jessica Edwards

Writer: Jessica Edwards

Starring: Mavis Staples, Adam Ayres, Gene Barge, Al Bell, Julian Bond, Steve Cropper, Bob Dylan, Anthony Heilbut, Levon Helm, Sharon Jones, Greg Kot, Prince, Bonnie Raitt, Marty Stuart, Jeff Tweedy

Year: 2015

Runtime: 80 minutes

Country: US


Search database: