The film opens with the film’s subject Chavela Vargas saying on camera to her interviewer that it is not the past that counts but what goes on from then. That was before the time of her death in 2012, so the doc has to take audiences back to where CHAVELA came from. There is also the point that not many know who she is, so back to the past.
The question then is what is so special about this Mexican artist/singer and why is it necessary to dedicate an entire documentary to her? This doc provides the possible answers, but whatever they are, it should be noted that Chavela Vargas was the Mexican icon who scandalized and captivated the world around her.
A few reasons: Chavela was notorious and that demands some respect. She had an affair with and broke the heart of artist, the then older Frida Kahlo. She attended Elizabeth Taylor’s Acapulco wedding, and woke up in bed with the movie star Ava Gardner. These are shown with just photographs of Liz Taylor and Gardner separately and voiceover, as no footage is assumed to be available. She wielded a gun and indulged in tequila with legendary enthusiasm. She has been known to collapse after drinking, and this happened often so that she had quite the reputation. Her singing made Spanish director Pedro Almodovar – and millions of others – cry. Her death in 2012 saw mourning akin to a Mexican state funeral. She was open gay, though no one ever brought it up directly. She became noticed as a singer when she refused to wear the traditional Mexican dresses but wore trousers and shirts (male attire) instead. She adopted the performance persona of the “charro” (a singing-cowboy genre plied by her legendary and tragic friend and collaborator Jose Alfredo Jimenez).
As Chavela died in 2012, the doc has to rely on already taken footage. Fortunately co-director Catherine Gund was the interviewer, availing herself of a rare opportunity during a time she spent living south of Mexico City. “My girlfriends played me Chavela’s songs and told me tales of her womanizing, her irresistible allure, her deep voice, her audacity. I had to meet her” She says.
The film is divided into two halves. The second shows her comeback, mainly in Spain and finally back to Mexico. This is the part where Spanish director Pedro Almodovar appears to aid her in her career. He uses her music in his films like KIKA and THE FLOWER OF MY SECRET.
The film’s best parts are understandably her performances, where the audience can see for themselves the reason for her popularity. She has the talent to move audiences to tears with her performances. The last part of the film see her in a wheelchair before her death in 2012.
Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi’s documentary shows Chavela the way she is, and her lifestyle – warts and all. At least their doc would make this artist (who every lesbian in Mexico respects, according to the film) more recognized in the world.