By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
Chavela Vargas, the iconic Mexican singer, captured the heart of Mexico and much of the world and, through the documentary bearing her name, our love. The film is, as was Chavela herself, gritty, funny, and hauntingly beautiful. In a nonlinear format, it follows her life from her childhood in Costa Rica in the 1920s and 1930s to her death in Mexico six years ago at the age of 93. A rich and controversial life it was.
As exquisitely captured in the 2017 documentary directed by Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi, Chavela was the embodiment of contradictions. At an early age, she was recognized as having an incredible voice, but at the same time she felt rejected by her mother and others as being different from the other girls. With a will of iron to succeed, at age 17 she made her way to Mexico, lured by Ranchera singers in films produced during the Golden Age of Mexican cinema.
Although she rapidly adopted the Ranchera style of performing, she eschewed the traditional costume which included lace-trimmed blouses, very full skirts, and dangling earrings. When at first she tried wearing that ultra-feminine ensemble, as she memorably commented in the documentary, “I looked like a transvestite.” Instead, she developed her own style, men’s pants and shirts topped with a red poncho that became her trade mark.
She sang for her supper wherever she found an opening and developed a small following, but it took more than ten years before her career blossomed under the tutelage of the famous Ranchera singer and composer José Alfredo Jiménez. The duo were dynamite – and Chavela suddenly appeared in films, in nightclubs and stages as an extremely macha version of the macho Jiménez. She also began to match him drink for drink and then went way beyond.
Although she was unabashedly a womanizer, and had torrid but often short-lived affairs with a series of women, including Frieda Kahlo and Ava Gardner, until late in life she rejected any suggestion that she was a lesbian, since that word was hurled at her by those who wanted to disparage her. The documentary includes poignant interviews with several of the loves of her last decades, describing her descent into alcoholism, her disappearance from public life, and her reappearance in the limelight after giving up alcohol to the surprise of her formerly adoring audience who assumed she had died.
Her reemergence occurred in Spain, where, under the tutelage of the director Pedro Almodóvar, she appeared on stage in actual theaters (rather than in the clubs and other small venues of her previous life) and also in many of his movies. A particularly moving part of the film occurs when Chavela insists on performing in Paris, where no one had ever heard of her. Almodóvar does his best to bring in a large audience, all the while fearing that only the first row will be filled. But she had a triumphant premiere in Paris.
The most compelling parts of the documentary consist of the interviews with Chavela herself interspersed with clips of her performances. The songs chosen to illustrate the various periods of her life are magnificently appropriate as an expression of what she is experiencing and feeling at the time.
The video interviews were conducted by Catherine Gund in 1992 – just as Chavela was emerging from her alcohol-induced retirement and twenty years before her death. According to Gund, during a winter visit to Mexico, she became captivated by records of Chavela’s music and stories of her life. She managed to wangle an invitation to meet her and was given permission to record their conversations. “It is no wonder she is called ‘The Rough Voice of Tenderness.’ I became obsessed with her ability to draw people in. I was fascinated by her lightness and ease, her masculinity. And with her song. But I came home and put those master tapes away.”
Although Chavela was in Europe for her final performances, she insisted on dying in Mexico, where she was adored and greatly admired. One interviewee says that every lesbian in Mexico knew Chavela and her songs. Mourning Chavela after the emotional funeral in 2012, Gund joined forces with Daresh Kyi, and these two remarkable women pulled together an international team to create the documentary. The team included Natalia Cuervas, a Mexico City based cinematographer, Adrián Gutiérrez, a Mexican filmmaker, and Lourdes Portillo, well known for her films on searching for Latino identity.
The team gave us this wonderful documentary, Chavela, which you can see in the US streaming on Amazon Prime Video with English subtitles, or can buy on DVD in Mexico.