“I’ll stop singing when I have nothing left to say … and you know, that ain’t gonna happen.”
This is one of the first lines in the new HBO Documentary Films production, and it sets the tone for the rest of the film. “Mavis!”, which premiered Feb. 29 on HBO, is a semi-biographical look at the career and influence of Mavis Staples, a soul and gospel singer and civil rights activist whose 60-year career shaped the music and mood of the 1960s and beyond. A typical documentary in form and length, “Mavis!” relies on the spark of its subject to propel it along.
Mavis began performing in earnest once her father heard her sing and realized they could make a family career out of it. Her recounting of her childhood is heartwarming; when people heard her for the first time, they didn’t believe it was a little girl. “ ‘That’s got to be a man or a big fat woman,’ ” she laughs, quoting them. “ ‘That’s not a little girl.’ ” The first time she ever got an encore, she didn’t know what that word meant — and because she had only prepared one song, she repeated it twice.
She became the lead singer of the Staple Singers when she was just a teenager; she and her father, “Pops” Staples, were the only constant performers through the history of the band. Their style was a blend unlike anything else being produced at the time; it fit into the pattern of popular gospel music, but it drew from the kind of music played in the 1920s. The strongest material of the documentary is found in the footage of Mavis’s performances, both from her past in the Staple Singers and as a solo artist later on.
By the time someone remarks in the documentary that Staples’s career has lasted as long as the Rolling Stones’ — and had as much influence — it isn’t hard to believe, though she isn’t as well-known in popular culture as other gospel singers. At one point, Staples casually mentions how Bob Dylan wasn’t just a fan of the Staple Singers, but wanted to marry her. It’s throwaway statements like this that remind us how rich a career Staples has had, adding a layer of touching depth to the documentary.
“Mavis!” takes some time getting to the civil rights portion of her story, but once it gets there, the documentary picks up steam. Staples talks about how she started performing “freedom songs” after experiencing the influence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the most mesmerizing segments is her account of watching little children attempt to board a bus during the integration of public schools in Little Rock; that experience is reflected in her music.
“Any freedom song that we wrote was because of the movement,” Staples says.
The warm, rich footage of her provocative music is compelling, both artistically and in the messages that, as she points out, are still relatable.
“Mavis!” feels longer than it is; it’s a relatively quiet film for such a powerful subject. It’s not a hypnotizing piece of work, but it does justice to its subject, and Mavis herself is delightful to listen to. The confidence she displays in her powerhouse vocal performances is mirrored in the longer interview segments; you can’t help but believe what she says. Toward the end of the documentary, she reiterates the sentiments with which she opened.
“I’ll sing until I can’t sing anymore,” she says, laughing. “ … and if ya’ll don’t see me here singin’, look for me in heaven. Somewhere, I’ll be walkin’ those streets of gold, singin’ round God’s throne.”