Hot Docs 2017: Chavela
This film opens with Chavela Vargas singing a song about solitude and it gets under your skin and stays there right away. She sings as if the Earth were ending tomorrow or better yet as if she’ll never be heard from again. The passion and soul she emits is the stuff all vocalist aspire to. Singing since the 1950s, Chavela Vargas truly was a vocal juggernaut. A take-no-prisoners woman who wore pants in the 50s when it was not cool for women to do so back then. The ultimate lesbian who pioneered a new style of Ranchera singing using her experiences both colorful and black. When women in her era sang with grace and beauty she sang with brutal passion or as one interviewee says “As if she was being ripped apart.”
After years of not getting along with family due to her parents separation and her inability to fit in with her peers and community, she moved to Mexico to cut her teeth in the music scene. In a very manly hispanic society, she was able to out drink, out play and out macho any dude that came across her path. A rock star before rock stars were in style. Being gay however set her back quite a bit as most clubs would never let her headline even though she amassed a huge cult following in her smaller gigs around Mexico. Tough as nails she played on anyways until the loss of a close friend drove her to drink in excess ruining her stage show causing her to retire.
In 1991 after a 12 year hiatus due to her alcoholism, Chavela was coaxed back on stage and decided to try performing live again. Her great performance lead to more gigs and she was whisked away to Spain where she became an icon. People compared her performances to therapy. This journey would lead her to special places that I will leave for you, dear reader, to experience for I feel I have said enough. I think I’m just genuinely afraid people might never see this film or worse, never experience her beautiful music. If both are true and you never do dive in, just know this: Chavela was a rebel who lived an amazing life. A life that touched many and influenced communities with a fiery passion. She deserves to be remembered and this well madedocumentary from Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi do just that.
The filmmakers have a profound respect for their subject, laying out her history rather neatly and splicing in old footage and candid photographs to beautiful effect. Like the documentary Amy, Chavela’s lyrics are seen on the screen as she sings and while this technique has been done before, it actually stings harder in this film for two simple reasons: obviously not everyone speaks Spanish so the translation is appreciated and once you match lyrics to the soul being projected you will be left rather flabbergasted. One performance in particular left me in tears because her words plus where she was at that particular time in her life was just too damn real. Like Nina Simone or Billie Holiday, too important to ignore not matter how toxic they became at times. It’s all about what you leave behind amd Chavela left an important legacy behind
Chavela, the film and the woman, is a story of bittersweet music, intense love and profound pain. Influencing powerful artists from the legendary Frida and to the prolific director Pedro Almodóvar, she burned rather brighty and this film screams it from the mountain tops. A highly recommended music doc about a voice that will never fade even when the artist herself nearly destroyed the chances of you ever hearing it.