It’s a very serious Pedro Almodovar who pays sincere tribute to Chavela Vargas: “In her voice I’ve found one of my best collaborators and a faithful reflection of myself.”
That reflection is the purpose behind the new documentary Chavela by Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi, which tells the story of the Costa Rican-born singer who became a prominent exemplar of Mexico’s traditional song form, the ranchera.
Like Almodovar, Gund and Kyi appreciate the reflection of gay experience that Chavela expressed through her singing but especially the public image she projected until her death in 2012 at age 93. Chavela presents the background of that life, based on Chavela (born Isabel Vargas Lizano) forging a masculine persona and her bold lesbian love life.
One of the many female friends, lovers and colleagues interviewed here recalls “To become Chavela, she had to be the most macha of the machos.” Chavela rejected the frippery of the typical Mexican chanteuse, cultivating a rough, weathered image of swept-back hair, no earrings and wearing a serape. In videos of her late years she resembles Harry Dean Stanton’s outdoorsy geezer crossed with a pants-wearing Kate Hepburn but instead of corn-pone or Yankee wisdom, she offers the same hard romantic insights as her songs: “Love is fleeting. Eternal love is corny.”
These self-dramatizing perceptions are part of the “faithful reflection” Almodovar appreciates. As a bio-pic, Chavela traces the history of Mexican love culture, especially the singer’s musical and tequila-laced collaborations with the singer-songwriter Jose Alfredo Jimenez (“He made the women [in his audience] fall for him. I would sing to them while he seduced them.”)
But there is the equally important personal story of Chavela venturing beyond herself which is the common passage for gay men and women. “Something was calling me. Someone was waiting for me. That mysterious being called ‘art’ was waiting for me.” Chavela repeats the classic, heroic, emotional migration from isolation to public self-acceptance that is dramatized in the films of Andre Techine and Julian Hernandez.
The raspy passion of Chavela’s singing connects the romantic fatalism of Mexican folk and pop music to the soulful understanding of gay life that defines filmmakers such as Almodovar.
Gund and Kyi indulge Chavela’s own self-dramatization, including moments from her volatile personal relationships and her claims of sleeping with both Frida Kahlo and Ava Gardner. The doc touches on the irony of butch lesbian attraction and sexual androgyny. When Almodovar sponsors Chavela’s comeback with performers in Spain and France, singer-actor Miquel Bose (Almodovar’s High Heels) briefly recalls Chavela’s flirtation: “If I had been a man you would have been my perfect woman.”
While Gund, Kyi and Almodovar attempt to idealize their subject (“She was a priestess. She absolved you of your sins, then encouraged you to commit them again,” Pedro enthuses), Chavela herself proves too ornery and singular. “I offer my pain to people who come to see me,” she boasts, acknowledging the intense identification queer audiences make with the deeply expressive pop stars of the past. And the doc ends with a fan’s awesome testimony: “There isn’t a lesbian in Mexico who doesn’t love and adore her.”
Chavela is showing at Film Forum in New York.