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Review: ‘Mavis!’ a fitting tribute to gospel/R&B diva Mavis Staples

“Mavis!” review
Mavis Staples performing in 2015.
(Miikka Skaffari / Film First / HBO)

The recent death of pop legend David Bowie has been a reminder to appreciate the greats while they’re still here. Gospel/R&B diva Mavis Staples makes that easy. Over the last several years, the 76-year-old has recorded some of the best albums of her career, in collaboration with Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy.

Tweedy pops up a lot in Jessica Edwards’ documentary “Mavis!,” as does Bob Dylan (who performed at folk festivals with her group the Staple Singers in the 1960s), civil rights leader Julian Bond (who marched with the Staples) and rapper Chuck D (who grew up listening to them).

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One of the big takeaways from “Mavis!” is that the subject’s a survivor, who’s had a bumpy trip through the history of modern American popular music — from the pre-rock era to the present. Edwards breezes easily through the story of the Staples, from the controversy over their recording secular soul songs like “I’ll Take You There,” to how Mavis struggled to find work when the public’s tastes changed in the 1980s and ‘90s.

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Through all the archival footage and new interviews, Edwards weaves in modern performances, showing how the singer still comes alive in front of an audience — just as she does whenever she talks about her father and musical mentor, “Pops.”

“Mavis!” is maybe too short and too plain, but it covers a lot of ground and contains a lot of great music. It’s a fitting tribute to a true American original, belatedly getting her due.

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‘Mavis!’

No rating

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica


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