In 1992, Catherine Gund met legendary Mexican singer Chavela Vargas and filmed her with a simple video camera; after Chavela’s death at the age of 93 in 2012, she unearthed the footage and discovered she had an invaluable record of the great artist candidly responding to questions ranging from career details to her philosophy on life. This fuzzy material forms the core of “Chavela,” a justifiably laudatory love letter to a woman whose voice drew forth a song’s every emotion, and whose life as a trouser-wearing lesbian celebrity became an inspiration throughout the Spanish-speaking world. Loaded with concert footage, interviews with friends, and terrific photos, this well-balanced documentary directed by Gund and Daresha Kyi celebrates the woman and the legend, and if the stock archival material doesn’t always fit, few will mind. Festival play is assured, but pubcasters and specialty art houses should also take note.
After watching the film, it’s hard to separate the image of the woman from the sounds she made. She had two zeniths: During the first, she already wore her scandalous pants and signature poncho, her hair pulled back to emphasize her smooth, confident face. This was the time when she was the lover of Frida Kahlo, among many others. Decades later, following a 12-year hiatus spent in an alcoholic spiral, she returned with short white hair and lined features, even more determined than before to conquer the world.
Gund’s method of conquest was her voice. Fellow singer Eugenia León talks about how Chavela tossed aside the trappings and embellishments of traditional Mexican song (and presentation), zeroing in on the wounded soul called forth by “ranchera” music. Gund (“Born to Fly”) and Kyi open with a 1991 Mexico City concert in which the 72-year-old sings with an emotion that, despite the exaggeration of performance, draws forth the wellspring of pain that comes from “soledad,” or “solitude.” Even as her voice became less supple, she was able to pour into her songs the intensity of loves that caused unwelcome anguish yet unrenounceable sorrow.
Chavela’s pain began early in life, when her parents withheld affection and everyone denigrated her boyish manner. Full of rage and realizing that her birthplace, Costa Rica, was too provincial for her tastes, she went to Mexico where she was taken up by the cabaret world. At first she played the game, wearing gowns and high heels, but her career properly took off when she found her true style and became the bohemian darling of the café crowd. That’s also when the drinking began, well-partnered by master ranchera singer-songwriter José Alfredo Jiménez.
When the alcoholism became chronic, her career took a nosedive. Broke and alone, she seems to have lived in a haze, rescued by her relationship with lawyer Alicia Pérez Duarte. When that ended, nursing a major new sorrow, she resurrected herself, this time in Spain where Pedro Almodóvar did much to spread the word. Filled with a new hunger and lapping up the adulatory audiences, Chavela finally transitioned from cabaret houses to leading concert halls, performing until practically her last breath.
The documentary packs in a lot of information but doesn’t feel crowded, and the concert footage will help recruit legions of new fans. Many undoubtedly will first be drawn to the woman’s bravery, her insistence on living life her way, and though she didn’t publicly acknowledge her sexuality until she was 81, she presented herself in a manner that left little ambiguity on that score. What makes Chavela so special though is the way she exposed her soul in song: as a lesbian unwilling and unable to hide, and also as a wounded woman who recalls lost loves with pain but without regret.
Gund and Kyi load up on evocative photos and insightful interviews, though Gund’s own recordings from 1992 are the most revelatory in demonstrating Chavela’s mix of confidence with injured pride and a flirtatious desire to control her own legend. The only place the directors trip up is in the generic archive footage used to set each place in time and space: The period is often wrong, and the blandness of the images never really illustrates the cities where Chavela’s outsized presence was felt.