The full-bodied richness of Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa’s voice is given equal weight to her life and politics in Rodrigo H. Vila’s enjoyable if standard bio-docu. Developed with the assistance of her son Fabian Matus, who acts as guide and interviewer, the pic nicely straddles a line between Sosa’s private and public personas, never quite delving deep although Vila covers all the bases, from her poor childhood through her fame, run-ins with the military junta, exile, triumphant return and widespread influence. A small Stateside release will satisfy fans and inspire the uninitiated.
Sosa’s honorific, “the voice of Latin America,” was an apt title for the singer given her roots in the continent’s music as well as her championing of identity politics. Heavily influenced by Chilean folk singer Violeta Parra, Sosa performed a repertory typical of a musician coming of age in the 1960s, but expanded beyond folk roots to encompass sounds from all over South America, including Brazil (a duet with Milton Nascimento is one of the docu’s archival footage highlights).
With Sosa, it wasn’t merely that she sang of pride, freedom and an almost Bolivarian sense of identity; it was her instrument that made such an impact. Vila doesn’t discuss her training beyond saying she was discovered at age 15 thanks to a radio contest, yet the beautiful sounds she produced from deep within her ample body carried the weight of an opera performer while remaining earthy — a voice not just of Latin America, but of the people.
Vila previously made a docu about Sosa’s final recording in 2009, “Mercedes Sosa: Cantora, an Intimate Journey.” Here, he covers the full spectrum of her life, weaving in a broad range of talking heads discussing her influence, personal triumphs and heartaches. Though from a Peronist family, Sosa turned away from the harsh policies of Isabel Peron (this part should have been filled out better), identifying more and more with left-wing politics and later becoming a thorn in the side of the military dictatorship until she was finally forced into exile in Paris in 1978.
Being booted out of Argentina likely increased her fanbase in Europe, and she developed an especially strong following in France and Germany. A return to Argentina in 1982, during the waning days of the dictatorship, boosted morale and, in the words of fellow musician Charly Garcia, “made us strong and defiant.” Vila lets the chronology go a bit slack toward the end, and it’s not clear how long Sosa’s debilitating depression lasted, but her return was triumphant, and her death in 2009 still leaves her family and friends emotional.
Comparisons with Joan Baez speak to their common political roots, though Sosa’s identification was with an entire continent’s working-class and indigenous population as well as left-wing causes. Vila chooses good moments to excerpt from various interviews she made, and the overall picture is of an artist open to new musical forms and eager to use her considerable talents to induce change. Visuals are problem-free, and editing is smooth. A 52-minute version for TV has also been prepared.