Chavela: a portrait of a dark and delicious diva - Drew Rowsome - Moving Pictures - MyGayToronto

Chavela: a portrait of a dark and delicious diva

REVIEW by Drew Rowsome

29 November 2017

Chavela digs its hooks in from the opening sequence. Or it could be that Chavela Vargas digs her hooks in the instant her voice emanates from the screen? While she sings in a rough, lush voice, the lyrics appear in faux-handwritten subtitles over glamorous photos of Chavela in her prime. The words are so despairing and over-the-top that they cross into camp - until the voice transforms them into dark, despairing poetry. It is haunting, hypnotic and a revelation.

It is embarrassing to admit that I, like much of an english language-centric audience, had never heard of Chavela, but after one little taste of her voice and her reinvention, her queering, of the ranchera tradition, the documentary Chavela became irresistible. A documentary about a musical icon can have a certain predictability built into its structure, there is a formula we've all seen, so it succeeds or fails on the strength of the subject. With Chavela Vargas, directors Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi have found the holy grail of Behind the Music personas. And managed to record a delightful and frank interview with the diva herself—with which to stitch the whole enterprise together—as she was emerging from a hiatus and ready to reclaim her superstar status.

She tells of attending Elizabeth Taylor's wedding in Acapulco where "everyone slept with someone." Then with flawless comic/musical timing she pauses a beat before, "I woke up with Ava Gardner." Another interviewee explains how Chavela casually seduced the wives of politicians and intellectuals, even losing her record contract, after 80 some releases, by seducing the label head's girlfriend. Another adds, "Everybody knows she slept with all of Mexico." When that includes loving and leaving Frida Kahlo, we are not dealing with an ordinary biography.

Chavela hits all the show business saga beats with enough twists to keep it surprising and suspenseful: a climb to the top, a descent into alcoholism, a fixation with guns, love affair after love affair, dabbling in mysticism, a late in the game coming out, and a triumphant return to the world stage from the abyss. That her final act was partially engineered by the lesbians of Mexico to whom she is a folk hero, and gay icons in their own right, Pedro Almodovar and Miguel Bosé, just makes the comeback all the sweeter and more powerful. No-one celebrates divas, that ability to transcend camp to ecstatic enlightenment, better than the gays. Almodovar raves, "She absolved you of your darkest sins. And then encouraged you to do them again."

Chavela waxes cynically poetic about love, that it is fleeting, temporary, painful, and takes forever to forget, but it is the music that makes her statement, her legacy. Chavela unearths startling, heartbreaking concert footage that proves Chavela correct when she says, "I offer my pain to the people who come to see me. And it is beautiful." So is Chavela.

Chavela runs Fri, Dec 8 to Sun, Dec 17 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, 506 Bloor St W.