Film Review: Chavela
(Photo: Musicbox Films)
By Brigette Ginter
I must be honest, before seeing this film I had no idea who Chavela Vargas was. I also did not know what ranchera music was. After watching Chavela, I was not only a fan, I added her to my Spotify list.
Let’s rewind. Chavela, (produced and directed by Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi) is a documentary that tells the story of Chavela Vargas, a musical trailblazer who became the first successful female ranchera singer, eventually recording over 80 albums. Ranchera music typically was a genre reserved for men, telling stories of women, getting drunk, failed love, lost love…basically latin country music.
As the film tells the story of Chavela’s rise to fame, we also get a real glimpse into her inner world. Throughout the film, we hear her music, with English translations. I myself do not speak Spanish, but even without the translation, I could tell that her voice transcended language. One of her friends interviewed described her as singing “music of the soul, the wounded soul.”
Through interviews, we see Chavela as a person and very typical of the “tortured artist” stereotype. We hear about her struggles with alcoholism, but also we hear a lot about Chavela’s identity as a woman in a male-dominated career. Early on in her career, Chavela dressed in men’s clothes, while singing songs intended for men to woo women with, challenging mainstream morals of the 1950s.
We also hear of her love affairs, rubbing elbows with Diego Rivera and possibly having a brief affair with Frida Kahlo. Chavela keeps a bit elusive about the specifics of her celebrity lovers. A favorite of the 1950’s Hollywood set that would come to Mexico to vacation, Chavela actually sang at Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Todd’s destination wedding in Acapulco. That night, Chavela and the actress Ava Gardner went home together. We get a picture of Chavela as a seducer, as a charmer, as someone that drank and smoked cigars with the guys; as she admits “both women and men were into me.”
However, we also hear about her pain, her inability to fully be accepted for her sexuality and her “marimacha” identity as she describes it*. We also hear about her alcoholism and how that ultimately affected her career and relationships. Her alcoholism is poetically described as a sickness of her soul, “of being surrounded by everyone and not feeling anything.”
Although this documentary has elements of loss and tragedy, it ultimately has a positive message of reinvention of the self and redemption. In Chavela’s own words, “One’s’ truth prevails, you suffer a lot, but you make it through.”
Simply put, I would definitely recommend this film. It is captivating, enthralling, and has good music. Check out, Chavela!
* "Mari" is a common prefix for "homosexual", such as in the word "maricón" (gay). "Macha" is the feminine version of "macho" that still retains the masculine meaning. It literally means "a gay, manly woman"
Chavela was showing at the newly renovated Riviera theater, is available to view on Amazon and will soon be added to Netflix. Learn more here.