Gospel music great, rhythm-and-blues icon, civil rights activist and all-around living legend Mavis Staples is celebrated with the infectiously joyful enthusiasm of a passionately devoted fan in “Mavis!,” a spirited and captivating bio-doc that richly deserves the exclamation point in its title. Director Jessica Edwards adroitly entwines archival material, newly filmed interviews and live performances to create a cinematic portrait quite capable of converting the uninitiated into acolytes, and elevating casual interest to flood-tide levels of respect and affection. As the film progresses from the fest circuit to limited theatrical release to home-screen platforms, audiences will want to watch — and then do it again.
Of course, there’s more to the story of Mavis Staples than just Mavis Staples. “Mavis!” tracks back to the singer’s childhood in Chicago’s South Side — where her neighbors included Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield — and gives due props to Roebuck “Pops” Staples, her musically inclined father. Drawing on his background in blues and gospel, Pops joined forces with Mavis and her siblings (brother Pervis, sister Cleotha) to form the Staple Singers, the legendary group that sustained a slow, steady climb during the 1960s and ’70s from gospel performances at local churches to chart-topping with mainstream hits like “I’ll Take You There,” “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me),” “Respect Yourself” and, yes, “Do It Again.” (The latter tune, “Mavis!” amusingly details, was initially tuned down by Pops Staples, who felt uncomfortable with the sexual implications of Curtis Mayfield’s lyrics. But he ended up recording ”Do It Again” anyway as the title song for the 1975 Sidney Poitier-Bill Cosby comedy — and the result was another No. 1 single for the family.)
Edwards neatly folds into her “Mavis!” mash note a fascinating account of how gospel and folk music artists inspired, and were inspired by, the civil rights movement of the ‘60s. Martin Luther King Jr. embraced the Staple Singers as entertainers and friends in 1962 after Pops wrote and recorded the plaintive “Why Am I Treated So Bad,” a heartfelt response to the abuse heaped on African-American children attempting to integrate schools in Little Rock, Ark. Pops in turn was impressed by what he immediately recognized as the pro-integration message of the folk song “Blowing in the Wind,” and reached out to its composer, a young singer-songwriter named Bob Dylan.
Dylan pops up periodically here as a relaxed and forthcoming interviewee, and the equivalent of a supporting player in the Mavis Staples story. Even before he met the family, he recalls on camera, he was profoundly affected by the Staple Singers’ recording of the haunting “Uncloudy Day.” (“That made me stay up for a week, after I heard that song.”) Later, he crossed paths with the Staples during production of a TV special titled (no joke) “Folk Songs and More Folk Songs!” — represented here with an ineffably hilarious clip featuring a boyish Dylan — and he was immediately smitten with Mavis. So smitten, in fact, that Dylan asked Pops for Mavis’ hand in marriage. Mavis recalls that her relationship with the future superstar stopped far short of wedlock. But, she coyly concedes, “We may have smooched.”
Edwards hits all the high points of the Staple Singers’ crossover heyday, covering everything from their string of hits for Stax Records to their appearances at such diverse venues as the Newport Folk Festival and Wattstax, and providing a generous sampling of their contribution to Martin Scorsese’s all-star tribute to The Band, “The Last Waltz.” The movie is every bit as engrossing as it charts the peaks and valleys of the solo career Mavis has pursued followed Pops’ death in 2000. “Mavis!” finds her continuing to tour and perform — and winning new fans — as she remains a formidable force of nature well into her 70s.
Julian Bond, Bonnie Raitt, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and country artist/music historian Marty Stuart — arguably the only person on view here who’s a spiffier dresser than Prince, the producer of two Mavis Staples albums — are prominent among the friends, fellow musicians and veterans of the civil rights movement who offer appreciative testimonials to the documentary’s star. But Mavis Staples is the one who speaks and sings most eloquently and compellingly, particularly during her acceptance speech after winning a 2011 Grammy for her album “You Are Not Alone.” Pops laid the foundation, she proudly proclaims, “And I am still working on the building.” To that, “Mavis!” serves as a resounding amen.