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In the 1976 Oscar-winning classic Network, Faye Dunaway’s character refashions television news into entertainment, and one of the features she inaugurates is a segment called “Sybil the Soothsayer,” which spews out nightly doses of prophecies for the masses. That was meant to be an outlandish satirical fantasy of what television might become, but, in fact, there was already a real-life counterpart to Sybil on television, and his name was Walter Mercado, a Puerto Rican-born, gender-fluid astrologer who offered advice to viewers who wanted a peek into their futures.
Now, filmmakers Cristina Constantini (Science Fair) and Kareem Tabsch (The Last Resort) have made a documentary about Mercado, Mucho Mucho Amor, which is being showcased in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the Sundance Film Festival. The movie will be shown later on Netflix. It could use some sharper editing, but it’s an engaging portrait of a flamboyant character who will probably be a discovery to most festival attendees, even though he had a huge following in his heyday.
Mercado dressed in flowing capes and gaudy jewelry, and some people interviewed in the film comment that a first meeting often left people confused about his gender. He exploded stereotypes when he began performing in 1969, and he became a gay icon as well as a Latino pioneer, though some people — including Mercado himself — describe him as more asexual than gay. He had a long-term assistant and companion, Willie Acosta, also interviewed in the doc, but both men insist that their decades-long relationship was purely platonic. When the filmmakers ask the 87-year-old Mercado if he is a virgin, he replies, “The only one in town.” The truth about his sexuality may never be definitively known, since Mercado died in November after completing all the interviews for the film.
Despite this ambiguity, several people interviewed in the doc affirm Mercado’s influence in the LGBT community, particularly in exploding the homophobia that remains a part of Hispanic culture. His popularity, like Liberace’s in an earlier era, challenged all preconceptions about masculine entertainers.
Mucho Mucho Amor is fairly comprehensive, covering Mercado’s life in thorough detail, beginning with his childhood in Puerto Rico. It chronicles his many successes, mainly on Spanish-language stations, though he also made appearances on Howard Stern’s radio show and Sally Jessy Raphael’s TV talk show. He ended all his shows with the benediction that became the film’s title.
The filmmakers also secured an extensive interview with Walter’s former manager, Bill Bakula, who helped to engineer his success but later got into a major conflict with his client, trying to take control of his brand, which led to extended legal battles. As a result of these skirmishes, Mercado disappeared from public view in 2006. At times, the doc seems to be veering toward a kinky version of Searching for Sugar Man, as it tries to solve the mystery of a once-popular figure who vanished for years before being rediscovered by fans as well as the filmmakers. Near the end of Mercado’s life, a Miami museum mounted a major exhibition highlighting his impact on Latino culture.
But perhaps the most stirring example of his rediscovery came when he received a phone call from a fan, a fellow Puerto Rican artist, Lin-Manuel Miranda. One of the film’s most affecting scenes chronicles Miranda’s recollection of the years he spent watching Mercado’s TV show with his mother. When the two men meet, the encounter offers a strong validation of the astrologer’s impact on communities that were invisible until very recently.
The filmmakers deserve credit for the research they undertook and for the cooperation they earned from Mercado, his friends and family, and even adversaries like Bakula. Nifty animated passages are smoothly integrated. Nevertheless, like many documentaries these days, the 96-minute effort seems padded at times, as if the directors fell so fervently in love with their subject that they did not mind incorporating some repetitious passages. Still, most viewers will enjoy spending time with this quirky soothsayer and may feel a tinge of regret that they didn’t discover him when he was alive.
Directors: Cristina Constantini, Kareem Tabsch
Producers: Alex Fumero, Cristina Constantini, Kareem Tabsch
Executive producers: Darren Foster, Jeffrey Plunkett, Lisa Leingang, Mona Panchal
Director of photography: Peter Alton
Editor: Tom Maroney
Music: Jeff Morrow
Animation: Alexa Lim Haas
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
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