The Sonic City
Hot Docs: Review of Mavis!
For many of my peers who are part of the early-1980s’ Millennial generation (or Generation Y), the name Mavis Staples may not be one of instant recognition. I suppose for various reasons this is understandable with the rather large chronological gap between the height of The Staples Sisters’ popularity and the 1990s musical culture of my generation. Still, with this said, Staples and her band (consisting of her father Roebuck “Pops” Staples and siblings) created music which embodied a certain timelessness that is beginning to re-emerge in recent years, finally gaining the recognition which is rightly deserved.
I recently viewed the documentary Mavis!, and for me it not only highlighted her many musical accomplishments with The Staples Sisters and and her solo career, but it also illuminated her role in the civil rights movement of the United States that can often be all too easily overlooked in our day and age. As activists organized to demand equality in the 1960s, The Staples Singers were there at the forefront, writing freedom songs that would become the beloved anthems of many prominent activists, including Dr. Martin Luther King himself.
While the film details the evolution of The Staples Sisters from their early gospel roots in Chicago, it also effectively highlights their role as pioneers of early soul and R&B music. While some may already be aware of this much, Mavis! is particularly fascinating in its ability to convey just how far-reaching the influence of Mavis Staples has been upon other artists. Interviews and footage from a diverse A-list of musicians including Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Prince, Levon Helm, Chuck D, Marty Stuart, and Jeff Tweedy of Wilco fame not only confirm her influence of as an artist, but also the ability of Staples to create music that has not only transcended generations, and also artistic and musical styles. There are many documentaries out there that highlight influential musicians, but I have encountered very few that connect a particular artist to such a wide range of truly sincere admirers.
This is also a film about dedication and perseverance. At seventy-five, Staples is still going strong, not only in her musical endeavours, but in her lifelong quest for social justice. As an artist active since 1950, she has experienced drastic change, challenges, high-points and low-points, but has always stood strong and forged ahead; believing we can always continue to challenge one another to do better and further the tenets of equity and universal respect for one another. Unlike many biographical pictures that set an individual into a historical context, Mavis! is about an artist who is still relevant and inspiring today’s generation; a rather refreshing approach that anyone with a passion for social justice will surely relate to. A look into Staples’ life reveals that simply because we have made progress, it does not mean that our work is finished; there is still so much to be done.
There are plenty of other powerful and fascinating stories from the film that I could discuss here, but I’ll just conclude by saying that Mavis! was without a doubt, one of the most delightful and inspiring biographical documentaries that I have viewed in quite some time. There is an extraordinary story that unfolds, not only of an important musical career, but also one of the human condition eloquently captured that will be a must-see for anyone with an interest in social justice. If you were not a fan of Mavis Staples before encountering this film, I am quite certain that you will be after. Don’t let this one pass you by!
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About the Author
Casey Robertson is a genderqueer human rights activist, musician ,composer, and graduate student researching musicology and cultural theory. In recent years he has been involved with the committees of LGBTQA projects such as the Durham Pride Prom, Allies for Equality, and Queerstock Canada. He also served as a member of the board of directors for PFLAG Durham Region from 2012-2014, where he was a member of the peer2peer support team and a facilitator for monthly sharing evenings. Casey currently resides in the Church-Wellesley Village of Toronto and enjoys spending his free time scoring independent film projects and playing with his band Liberty Street, while on the constant search to discover new artists of all expressive forms. Follow Casey on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at CaseyRobertson.net