The extraordinary story of beloved Mexican ranchera singer Chavela Vargas is intricately documented in Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi’s warm and intimate Chavela, opening at Film Forum today. Chavela’s life might seem an all-too-familiar archetype, the tale of a powerful female vocalist, a lesbian performer whose career was wrecked by the lethal combination of a heterosexual macho society, personal demons, and addiction, but Chavela avoids stereotypes and instead delivers a very human portrait. Born in Costa Rica in 1919, Chavela had an unhappy childhood and ran away to Mexico when she was fourteen to pursue a singing career and live a freer life, able to explore her sexual orientation as she grew older. “Her own parents saw her as a strange girl. They realized she was a boyish girl,” composer Marcela Rodríguez says. “Her movement, her hands, and her body language were manly.” Her longtime partner, human rights lawyer Alicia Pérez Duarte, adds, “Chavela created her persona in a very macho world.” Chavela dedicated her life to her music while keeping much of her personal life private — the film drops little more than tantalizing hints about her relationship with artist Frida Kahlo and an evening with Ava Gardner — and her commanding presence and powerful vocal style quickly made her a star in the 1940s and ’50s. “Hers wasn’t a sweet, crystal clear voice,” says cabaret owner Jesusa Rodríguez. “And she always sounded like she’d been torn apart, as if she’d been born with the wounds of life and death.” But at the height of her fame, those wounds started catching up to her as she began drinking heavily, resulting in a fifteen-year hiatus during which many people thought she was dead. The film centers around a never-before-seen 1991 interview Gund conducted with Chavela upon her return to singing, as she speaks more openly and honestly about her sexuality, her family, and her career. She’s a riveting figure, confident and determined, ready to face the world again. “We all have to live in the present. Don’t think about yesterday or tomorrow. Today,” she says.
Editor Carla Gutiérrez seamlessly weaves between archival film and photographs of Chavela performing onstage and in movies, complete with English translations of the heartfelt lyrics; interviews from 1991 and later, as she revels in being a star again; and new interviews with cabaret owners Jesusa Rodríguez and Liliana Felipe, singers Tania Libertad and Miguel Bosé, Federico García Lorca Foundation president Laura García Lorca, artist Martirio, composer and singer José Alfredo Jiménez Jr., whose father wrote many of the songs that made Chavela famous, and Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, who used her music in his movies and played a major role in her comeback, which took Chavela around the globe, including to her beloved Madrid and to Carnegie Hall. “In her voice, I’ve found one of my best collaborators. And a faithful reflection of myself,” he says in an old clip, a feeling that is shared by many who knew her. Producer-directors Gund (Born to Fly, A Touch of Greatness) and Kyi (Land Where My Fathers Died; Thugs, the Musical) clearly love their subject, and their love is contagious, welcoming viewers into the pure majesty that is Chavela Vargas. (The 6:15 show on October 7 will be followed by a Q&A with Gund and Kyi, moderated by LGBT activist Eliel Cruz; the 2:20 show on October 8 will be followed by a Q&A with Gund and Kyi; the 8:10 show on October 10 will be followed by a Q&A with Gund, moderated by NewFest’s Nick McCarthy; and the 8:10 show on October 17 will be followed by a Q&A with Carnegie Hall show producer Claudia Norman, moderated by Cinema Tropical executive director Carlos Gutiérrez. In addition, Stephanie Trudeau is bringing her one-woman docu-cabaret show Chavela: Think of Me back to the Pangea Restaurant & Supper Club on November 2, 19, and 16.)