Chavela (NR)

Documentary 96 min. October 4, 2017
By Alan Scherstuhl
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 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 U.S. and Europe. She did it in pants and sometimes a poncho, singing like a man while dressed as a man.

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 that rather than focusing on what's most crucial in Vargas' life were 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: 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. The final third bogs down in repetitive comeback concerts.
Catherine Gund, Daresha Kyi Music Box Films

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