2017, NR, 93 min. Directed by Catherine Gund, Daresha Kyi.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Tue., Nov. 21, 2017
The captivating and androgynous performer Chavela Vargas, the celebrated singer of Mexican rancheras, is the subject of this long-overdue biopic which celebrates her life and career. Chavela serves as an illuminating primer for anyone unfamiliar with her career. A well-chosen collection of friends and former lovers provides reminiscences that flesh out Chavela’s challenging personality. However, the documentary provides scant information about the challenges Chavela faced in her career. Dressed in male garb of pants and a poncho, Chavela was a popular cabaret attraction who was never given access by the Mexican music brokers to perform on a big concert stage until her late-career resurgence in popularity that was colored by a climate of gay-acceptance and greater inclusiveness.
Born in 1919 to a family who would hide her from company due to her boyish demeanor, Isabel Vargas Lizano left home as a teenager to seek refuge in the cosmopolitan entertainment industry of Mexico City. She worked on the streets and in the cabarets under the name Chavela, singing the masculine ranchero love songs, using only a guitar and her voice – sans mariachi, and drawing out the songs for dramatic impact. The pathos was so much a part of Chavela’s style that fans would often get the sensation that she might die of anguish before reaching the end of the song. She became known as the best interpreter of the songs of the great ranchero composer José Alfredo Jiménez, and drank, smoked cigars, and caroused with him and the other men of his circle. She became “the most macha of all the machos,” observes one of the film’s commentators. With her short-cropped hair and androgynous appearance, she was known as a great seducer of women, with wives of diplomats and bold-faced names like Frida Kahlo and Ava Gardner among her amorous dalliances. Despite her popularity in the Fifties and Sixties and her recording of more than 80 albums, her own alcoholism and Mexico’s public disavowal of sexual contrariness prevented Chavela from ever rising to popularity beyond the cabaret circuit. In the Eighties, however, she returned to the stage after a 12-year absence, due in part to fans in Spain, such as filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar (one of the film’s speakers), who used her music in his films and engineered tours of major concert venues. At the age of 81, Chavela, finally surrounded by a climate of acceptance, came out as a lesbian.
Chavela is anchored by an extensive interview with the subject conducted by filmmaker Catherine Gund in 1991. It offers rare material of the artist speaking about herself. The film then jumps around in time, including various performance snippets and numerous friends and lovers presenting insight. While this provides the most extensive portrait of Chavela to date, the film’s impact might be even greater were it to include some commentary from music historians and record promoters. Chavela establishes this artist as a major figure of cultural importance, but comes up short when examining the details of her craft. Still, the film is an eye-opening primer on an intoxicating performer about whom too little is known.