'Chavela': Film Review | Berlin 2017

Courtesy of Berlinale
Chavela Vargas
A ballad of solitude rendered as an anthem of joyous defiance.

A trailblazing free spirit whose appetite for tequila and women was as legendary as her soul-stirring vocals, Mexican singer Chavela Vargas is given an adoring salute in this documentary portrait.

Nobody employs tortured, torchy vocals to quite such lush emotional effect onscreen as Pedro Almodovar. The Spanish maestro is among those paying loving tribute to one of his favorites muses, Mexican ranchera specialist Chavela Vargas, in this celebratory legacy documentary. A hard-drinking rebel who shredded the prevailing stereotype of the fem and flirty, hip-swinging senorita in Mexican popular music, the singer commands the stage in passionate performances throughout Chavela, owning a trademark androgynous look of ponchos over pants that made her a queer icon long before she openly defined herself as a lesbian at age 81.

A natural for LGBT film forums as well as music-related programming, the entertaining documentary is by Catherine Gund (whose 2014 feature, Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity, also blended performance with personal profile), co-directing with Dareshi Kyi. The strong connection to the subject is evident from the grainy video interview with Vargas that serves as the film's spine, shot by a young Gund in the early '90s in Mexico and dug out after the singer's death in 2012, aged 93.

The core material is augmented with a wealth of archival footage and photographs, as well as extensive interviews with music aficionados, associates, friends, lovers and admirers. While the package is fairly conventional in assembly, the talking-head elements are graced by the choice to shoot in homey spaces like kitchens and living rooms or outdoors, with the interviewees surrounded by food, books, records, artworks and mementos — or by nature. That creates a lovely suggestion of life coursing through the movie, an idea in keeping with the subject herself.

Born Isabel Vargas Lizano in Costa Rica in 1919, Chavela was an unloved, lonely child whose boyish manner was an embarrassment to her traditional churchy parents. The Golden Age of Mexican Cinema drew her as an angry young runaway to her adoptive country, where she eventually became a professional singer.

While Chavela appears to have been a striking, Modigliani-esque beauty in photos from her early adulthood, she claims: "Dressed like a woman, I looked like a transvestite." Only once she settled on her defining personal style did her fame grow. With her hair pulled back in a severe braid and later chopped off, wearing no makeup and masculine clothing, she began singing deeply felt songs of pain, solitude and lost love in a voice both rough and tender that suggested she had literally been torn apart. The filmmakers run English translations of the lyrics onscreen in an elegant, floating font, underlining the unifying sentiments of the songs, many of them popularized by Jose Alfredo Jimenez and intended to be sung by men for women.

At the same time, Chavela was partying hard with fellow traveling musicians, draining bottle after bottle of tequila in rowdy all-night sessions at bohemian hangouts. “She had to be stronger, more macho and more drunk than all the other singing cowboys,” comments one observer. She became a sexual outlaw in a misogynistic, homophobic, patriarchal society. Her unambiguous homosexuality mostly went unacknowledged, even if she allegedly was sleeping in secret with countless wives of politicians and intellectuals.

Chavela herself, along with others, admits that accounts of her conquests — such as slipping away with Ava Gardner from Elizabeth Taylor's Acapulco wedding to Mike Todd — may or may not have been embroidered. She also retains an air of mystery regarding her brief but intense liaison with Frida Kahlo, illustrated in some fabulous photos. But the documentary makes a persuasive case that legend trumps truth. This also applies to under-explored mentions of her propensity for violence and gun-slinging.

There were dark times, during which she dropped out of sight for 12 years, living in Tepotzotlan in the 1980s in a haze of alcoholism before being rescued by a Huichol Indian family that turned her onto Shamanism. She then enjoyed an amazing comeback in her 70s in Spain, when Almodovar's influential support helped introduce her to a wider audience and led to her playing the great stages that were off limits in her younger years, among them Carnegie Hall, the Olympia in Paris and the Bellas Artes in Mexico City. Footage of these late-career performances becomes increasingly emotional as she grows frailer, with her former manager noting that she tried as hard as she could to die onstage. Images from her funeral bring tears.

"Chavela lived in a continuous state of farewell," says Almodovar, describing her hunger to keep performing until the end. The warmth and humor with which the director speaks of her is matched by words from other intimates like Spanish pop star and actor Miguel Bose, who recalls Chavela telling him: "If I had been a man you would have been my perfect woman." That kind of subversive gender twist seems all the more radical coming from a woman of Vargas' vintage and background. Among the most touching tributes come from her longtime lover Alicia Elena Perez, who refers to her grandly as "la Senora," though doesn't gloss over the more tempestuous side of their relationship.

"What a blessing from the cosmos to be born a woman," says Chavela, who lived out and proud for decades before she put a name to her sexuality, but dedicated all her songs to every woman. And yet as Almodovar attests, she created such an intimate rapport between performer and listener that she seemed to be singing only to you.

Production company: Aubin Pictures
Director-producers: Catherine Gund, Daresha Kyi
Executive producers: Lynda Weinman, Bruce Heavin
Directors of photography: Catherine Gund, Natalia Cuevas, Paula Gutierrez Orio
Music: Gil Talmi
Editor: Carla Gutierrez

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Documentary)
Sales: Latido

92 minutes

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