‘Chavela’ Delves Into the Life of the Mexican Icon

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Words by Fernie Martinez

Photo Credit: Ysunza

“La más macha de los machos” is one of the many colorful descriptions bestowed upon the legendary Mexican singer Chavela Vargas in the new documentary Chavela, by filmmaking team Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi. The description is apt—Chavela’s rough voice, androgynous looks, and hard-drinking lifestyle allowed her to infiltrate a patriarchal society and disarm it using its most vulnerable tenet, the ranchera.

Though the narrative of tragedy and triumph is commonplace in musical biographies, the story of Chavela stands out for its ability to transcend generations, genders, and cultural archetypes. The documentary does a commendable job recounting Chavela’s life from beginning to end, starting with her tumultuous childhood in her native Costa Rica, to her move to Mexico at age 14 where she began performing on the streets and in cantinas. She was best known for interpreting canciónes rancheras, stripping them bare of their musical adornments, leaving only a foundation of guitar and voice from which to build new temples for the worship of misery.

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Photo Credit: Excelsior/Imagen Digital (Left) and Maj Lindstrom (Right)

The film relies mostly on a grainy home video that Gund shot of Chavela in the early 90’s during a visit to Mexico. In it, a candid Chavela offers to answer any question, though her keen self-awareness favors the responses that amplify her legend. The tape was dug up after the singer’s death in 2012, and though the quality is amateurish, the footage is a wonderful keepsake and used with great purpose in the documentary to punctuate the narrative.

As the film continues, it showcases how early on she caught the attention of legendary singer José Alfredo Jiménez. She became the finest interpreter of his songs and the two formed a tight bond that often resulted in multi-day tequila binges. Chavela found success shortly thereafter and became a staple of Mexico’s golden-era culture scene. Her list of lovers was as distinguished as her voice. She had a passionate affair with Frida Kahlo and doesn’t refute the claim that she slept with Ava Gardner during Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding in Acapulco. After losing money via bad deals with the industry, Chavela fought hard with alcoholism and disappeared from the public limelight for 12 years where she was assumed dead by the general populace.

A particularly powerful scene shows Chavela returning to the stage in Mexico after her long hiatus. In it, she sings the classic song “Volver,” infusing a lifetime of experience into its familiar stanzas. Though the song is addressed to a lover, the opening lines of “nos dejamos hace tiempo, pero me llego el momento de perder” mirror her life’s story so closely, she finds it hard to fight back tears while singing it. By the time she reaches the chorus “yo se perder, yo se perder, quiero volver, volver, volver,” there is enough gravitas in her voice to pull the tides.

What follows is a late-life resurgence that had Chavela performing in the world’s most prestigious venues, thanks in small part to Pedro Almodóvar. The Spanish director considered her a muse and brought her to perform in Spain and France where her decades-long career became an overnight success. She also became a huge role model for Mexico’s LGBT community when she publicly came out at the age of 81.

The documentary does an admirable job in covering the details of Chavela’s life while giving us keen insight into her philosophies. There are times when some of the technical aspects of the documentary fall short. There is a shortage of archival photographs needed to fill a 90-minute doc, which results in particular photographs being used repeatedly. The film also relies on generic stock footage of Mexico for unnecessary filler. However, these minor pitfalls are balanced out by allowing the songs and performances to have extended screen time. The filmmakers quickly realized that the best way to keep the audience immersed is simply setting the Paloma Negra free.

Screenings of the film begin this week in cities around the U.S. with more to be announced. You can find a screening in your city below or by visiting the film’s website.