Part of the Edinburgh Spanish Film Festival
This witty, engaging yet powerful documentary on the life of Mexican ranchera singer Chavela Vargas traces the development of her own unique identity from a traditional religious childhood in Costa Rica that saw her as an embarrassment to be hidden away; to her rise to fame in Mexico as a woman who rejected conventional notions of femininity to assume a more masculine on(and off-) stage identity, concluding with her eventual comeback in the early 1990s until her death in 2012, still stubbornly insisting on performing whilst frail and wheelchair-bound.
We also learn of Chavela’s fiery and individualistic spirit that ran counter to the patriarchal, traditionalist Mexican society in which she performed. This recurring theme comes across in her early refusal to wear dresses and make-up on stage to her later numerous bisexual relationships with politicians’ wives and celebrities including Ava Gardner, concluding with her coming out at the age of eighty-one. However, anecdotes about Chavela’s need to keep up with her male colleagues by drinking them under the table, whilst initially humorous, also foreshadow her later difficulties with alcohol.
Directors Gund and Kyi use recollections from those who knew Chavela well, director Pedro Almodovar being a notable example, as well as archive footage of Chavela herself being interviewed by Gund to narrate the documentary. This is a device that has been used in many recent documentaries, Asif Kapadia’s Amy and Mark Hartley’s Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, and it works here, managing to preserve Chavela’s spirited personality by allowing the woman herself to tell her story.
However, the documentary doesn’t just present a one-sided perspective on Chavela herself (which the strong-willed “Senora” in question would surely have hated!), instead including her battle with alcoholism that kept her off the stage and in obscurity during the 70s and 80s, as well as her violent temper which affected her relationship with her lawyer. These moments, which could have easily been glossed over, are honestly discussed by both the interviewees and Chavela herself, and provides a greater insight into her vulnerabilities as a human being, rather than simply depicting her as a symbol.
When reviewing a biographical documentary, the most crucial factor in determining its success is whether they make a convincing case for the person being covered being an interesting subject. Chavela not only presents a three-dimensional portrait of the singer, it’ll make you wish you could see her in concert.