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Mavis - The movie Options
Posted: Wednesday, December 23, 2015 12:46:47 PM

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Mavis! review: Gospel singer biopic shows why she's a music industry staple

Date December 23, 2015 - 11:54AM

Jake Wilson


MAVIS! ★★★

(PG) ACMI Melbourne; Golden Age, Sydney (81 minutes)

"Shout, let it out," advises Mavis Staples. "You're gonna feel better." A professional gospel singer since her teens, Staples has never lacked an outlet for her emotions, which may explain why, in her mid-70s, she seems as comfortable with herself as anyone you could meet.

A small, round, unaffected woman with a husky voice and a taste for hoop earrings, Staples has lived through many sea-changes in popular music, from her early success as one of the Staple Singers – a quartet founded by her beloved father Roebuck "Pops" Staples – to collaborations with Prince and Jeff Tweedy from Wilco.

In the conservative world of 1960s gospel the Staple Singers were a progressive force associated with the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King. For Staples this remains a particular source of pride: she describes herself as a "living witness" and her concerts still include "freedom songs".

Directed by newcomer Jessica Edwards, this tribute documentary follows a standard biographical formula. Still, the film would be worth seeing and hearing just for the footage of Staples in concert. As her friend Bonnie Raitt​ comments, her unique sound is both pure and rough; she can soar towards heaven, then descend to a baritone growl.

Speaking for herself as well as Staples, Raitt​ notes that dedication to music can leave little time for a personal life. The film bears this out, touching only briefly on Staples' single short-lived marriage, her unfulfilled yearning for children, and her apparent romance with a pre-fame Bob Dylan. "We may have smooched," Staples coyly allows.

Dylan, at any rate, makes a rare appearance here as a talking head in black hat and pencil moustache, mumbling in a monotone while looking away from the camera. He's an eye-catching presence, but no-one's going to steal Mavis Staples' show.

Heading out for the East Coast / Lord knows I've paid some dues gettin' through, / Tangled up in blues.
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