Chavela Vargas was an icon in so many ways. She was a pioneering female artist in Mexican Ranchero music; a fierce lesbian who continues to empower the Mexican LGBT+ community; her 70+ year career survived turmoil and heartbreak, and she continued to perform well into her 90s, still selling out shows mere weeks before her death. She was a game-changer in every sense of the word, and though her legacy is enormous in Latin America and parts of Europe, directors Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi are determined to take her complex story to the world in the documentary Chavela.
Beginning with her move to Mexico as a young child from Costa Rica, Chavela chronicles the incredible loneliness of Chavela Vargas, her estrangement from her family and exclusion from public life, because while her sexuality was okay onstage, in Mexican society it was unacceptable. This led not only to her extreme alcoholism during the first half of her career, but also her endless romances and affairs; at one point in the film we discover that Chavela had seduced all of Mexico and half of Hollywood at the height of her career. As we meet some of the women who Chavela loved and lost, we discover how deeply she loved, and the tragedy of being loved by her fans, yet so alone.
Indeed, it is this loneliness that fueled her incredible music; with lyrics full of pain and sorrow, Chavela’s music is raw and soulful. Gund and Kyi weave together her stories and her songs all through the film, and the music paints the best picture of her life, one that you feel inside of you: despite all her heartache, she lived a full life that never slowed down. In fact, it only moved faster, with her triumphant comeback a reminder that Chavela was more than her addictions, and that just like her music, she would continue to inspire.
Throughout Chavela, many of her friends and lovers tell her tumultuous story, such as Jose Alfredo Jimenez Jr, son of Chavela’s legendary collaborator Jose Alfredo Jimenez, and Pedro Almodovar, the director who was instrumental in her comeback (she sang and appeared in The Flower of my Secret); yet the film’s most striking footage is of Chavela herself, in a group interview with fans. Frozen in time in this footage from 1990, her words give insight into the story unfolding around her, and also what was yet to come for her at the time of the interview.
Chavela’s lyrical journey through the emotional rollercoaster of Chavela’s life may take you to the lowest of lows of celebrity addiction and despair, but its redemptive arc is deeply satisfying as Chavela earns the career she always deserved.