The day you first hear Chavela Vargas is the best day you’ll have that year. A majestic and inimitable performer, and a lesbian trailblazer of gender nonconformity, the Mexican chanteuse stripped ranchera music to its wounded heart, singing lovesick, masculine cowboy songs with a voice that holds hurting like liquor holds fire. Her accompaniment, usually two guitars, is as spare as that of Hank Williams or Leonard Cohen, as lonesome as a vaquero’s campfire, a radical new conception of the music of the mariachis. Her voice, which ranges down to a contralto, can stop you, tear at you, tough and tender at once, her singing thrilling in its intimacy, sounding at times as if it might collapse into a sob.
In the middle of the last century, Vargas scored hits, romanced Frida Kahlo and Ava Gardner, and toured the United States and Europe. She did it in pants and sometimes a poncho, singing like a man while dressed as a man. And drinking, we’re told in Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi’s Chavela — a cradle-to-grave doc survey of her life — like a man, too. “She had to be more macha, more drunk than any other singing cowboy around,” notes one of the few experts Gund and Kyi present. “She had to be the most macha of the machos.”
The film would be valuable by dint of its existence alone: Too few in the English-speaking world know of Vargas or her music. But it reduces a great life to a merely good movie, suffering from a problem that nags too many documentaries. You can sense, as Chavela plays, that rather than focusing on what’s most crucial in Vargas’ life, we're focusing on the moments that the producers have footage of. In this case, the most crucial stages of Vargas’ career and development are lost to us: The singer dared in the streets and then cabarets of Mexico City in the 1930s and ’40s, to dress in pants and sing men’s songs. Vargas herself speaks of this, without much detail, in interview footage recorded in 1991, and talking heads today attest to the courage this took. But we learn little of how she arrived at her sound or her presentation of herself, much less how it went over the first nights, or how the press and the public received her. We're presented with the fact of her, with the Chavela that she willed into existence. No contemporaries tell us of those days, and we get little sense of how (and whether) she shifted the culture, and how it in turn shifted her. She marvels in ’91 at her audacity: "What's with this woman wearing pants before the 1950s?" The film marvels with her but doesn’t have much of an answer.
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But we do get performances. We hear her on record, from in her youth and in cabaret and concert appearances from late in her life. Every note has majesty. The filmmakers are smart enough to let us exult in the songs, letting them play out for full verses and chorus without interruption, an English translation of the lyrics unspooling across the screen. They have heaps of footage of Vargas in the 1990s and 2000s, when she made a comeback after a decade lost to drinking; they also interview at length one of Vargas’ long-term, late-in-life lovers, who offers harrowing stories about what it’s like to try to make a life with the most stubborn of alcoholics. (Vargas, still macha, liked to brandish a gun.) The final third of the film thrills, at first, with comeback concerts, some arranged in Spain by her fan Pedro Almodóvar. But the concerts keep coming, their narratives increasingly familiar: It looks at first like the singer, now in her 70s and 80s, might not make it through — but then she triumphs. The music is great, but the film seems at the mercy of the material available, despite all the fascinating stretches of Vargas’ life and art that go unexamined.