Anyone who has ever heard the late Spanish-language singer Chavela Vargas, who died at 93 in 2012, knows there’s more going on than meets the eye, or the ear, for that matter. With their respectful and revealing doc “Chavela” (Music Box Films), co-directors Catherine Gund and Dayesha Kyi give the true story of the ranchera diva a long overdue telling. The film seamlessly combines extensive Vargas interview footage from 1991 with vintage performance footage, as well as reverent interviews with gay filmmaking legend Pedro Almodovar, Vargas’ former manager Mariana Gyalui, singers Eugenia Leon, Miguel Bosé and Tania Libertad, cabaret owners Jesusa Rodriguez and Liliana Felipe, composer Marcela Rodriguez, fashion designer Elena Benarroch, photographer Tlany Ortega, former senator Patria Jimenez, and Jose Alfredo Jimenez Jr, son of composer Jose Alfredo, as well as two of Vargas’ ex-lovers, lesbian author Betty Carol Sellen and human rights lawyer Alicia Perez Duarte, among others.
Born Isabel Vargas Lizano in Costa Rica, “at the end of the world” in 1919, Vargas describes herself as a sad and lonely girl who didn’t play with dolls and “grew up alone”. Mistreated by her religious and prejudiced parents, who thought she was strange, “a boyish girl”, the rebellious and full of rage Chavela lived with an aunt and uncle after parents divorced. All the while she was obsessed with leaving home.
When she finally did leave, arriving in Mexico City in the 1930s, she discovered music and art waiting for her there. Striking up a friendship with ranchera music composer/performer Jose Alfredo Jimenez, Vargas earned the reputation as the best interpreter of his songs.
Chavela also succeeded in creating a persona for herself in a macho world where lesbians had no place. She skirted the hypocrisy of Mexican society (they all knew she was gay, but never discussed it) as lesbians were marginalized in the patriarchal society. She suffered as she opened doors and paths for others, unaware that she would be constructing a legend.
Among the lovers Chavela claimed were Frida Kahlo (during the 1940s) and Ava Gardner (during the 1950s, when lots of Hollywood royalty spent time in Acapulco), as well as the wives of government officials. However, by 1973 her alcoholism was taking its toll on her career. She was in bad shape in the 1980s, broke, alone and blacklisted.
Meeting the aforementioned Alicia Duarte, whom she called Nina, in 1988 was the beginning of her sobriety. That and her belief in mysticism and shamans. Her 1991 performance comeback in Mexico City, singing sober for the first time, led to even greater opportunities. Pedro Almodovar brought Chavel to Spain in 1992. As Almodovar puts it, in Vargas’ voice he “found” one of his “best collaborators”, and by including her in his films, her voice becomes part of the script. Happy in Spain, feeling “loved and protected”, Vargas officially came out. The revelation had no impact on her career, singing to packed houses in Paris at the Olympia and in Mexico City at Bellas Artes in 1995, as well as throughout early part of the 21st century. Rating: B+