The great Chavela Vargas led one of the most extraordinary lives, as an icon of Mexican music, a sexual pioneer, a fierce lover and artist, and a favorite of Pedro Almodóvar. Her story is told in the unforgettable new documentary, which The Wrap calls “dazzling. The Chavela Vargas Film opens ONLY at the Center for Contemporary Arts. November 13th – 16th multiple times.
Androgynous long before it was stylish, Chavela Vargas burst onto the Mexican music scene in 1942 in a long braid, trousers and a poncho, tequila bottle in hand and singing like a man. The captivating documentary “Chavela,” directed by Catherine Gund (“Born to Fly”) and Daresha Kyi, mesmerizes with its impressionistic blend of archival photos, musical performances, concert footage and candid interviews with the legendary singer herself, as well with her ardent friends like Pedro Almodóvar and former lovers.
One of her most famous paramours was Frida Kahlo: Their passionate affair comes to life via Vargas’s eloquent recollections, and Gund and Kyi’s well-chosen photos of the two together. Vargas vividly recalls the first time she laid eyes on Kahlo: “She was like a vision. When I saw her face, her eyes, I thought she wasn’t human, that she was from another world. Her eyebrows together were a swallow in mid-flight.”
Vargas’ poetic inclinations are chronicled in this meditative and in-depth film mostly through her rough and tender renditions of ranchera songs. The lyrics, translated into English, are artfully depicted in old-fashioned handwriting across the screen. Her interpretation of classic Mexican music was deeply emotional, nakedly capturing Vargas’ sense of lonely yearning. “I offer my pain to people who come to see me,” she said. “I bring baggage that I open up onstage.”
Kyi and Gund have unpacked the most intriguing items in that baggage. They unearthed a treasure trove of black-and-white photos from the 1930s through the ’60s, as well as striking footage selected from 70 years of performances. Gund first met the uncompromising singer in 1992. Her video footage and starstruck interview forms the heart of this cinematic love letter. She and Kyi give us a riveting glimpse into Vargas’ psyche, yet they also preserve the mysterious allure she carefully cultivated.
What most strikes the viewer in listening to Vargas and the insightful observations of those who knew her is that she was a profoundly complex, even contradictory, person. She fell in love a lot, but found the notion of eternal love “corny and old-fashioned.” She loved being on stage, but craved solitude. She was an artistic rebel, yet she respected Mexico’s patriarchal society. A beauty in her youth, she looked happiest in her own skin as she grew old and weathered. She dressed like a man, but took years to come out openly as lesbian, at 81, though she had boldly bedded celebrities and the wives of influential politicians and intellectuals.
She became an LGBT icon, especially in Mexico, long before she was officially out. “For the lesbian community, Chavela is the most important woman in Mexican history,” says former Mexican senator Patria Jimenez. “She opened a path for us from the moment she started singing in Mexico. There isn’t a lesbian in Mexico who doesn’t know Chavela Vargas and who doesn’t love and adore her.”