For women, female musicians and lesbians in Mexico, Chavela Vargas was a groundbreaking figure. She was a performer who did not bow to the pressure of being female. Meaning she dressed and sang as she wanted to not as what was expected. A unique person who had an effect on many across several generations. In other words, a life worthy of examination.
The story of Chavela’s life (focuses mostly upon the her time as a performer) is constructed through some old footage, rarely seen interviews with her that took place before her death in 2012 and interviews with important people in her life like director Pedro Almodovar, musician Miguel Bose and several of her friends and lovers. The most poignant scenes are of the woman herself on stage singing with the lyrics of her songs appearing onscreen.
What will draw you into the documentary (and the woman herself) is how human she is. Flawed, funny, strong, and vulnerable. She is immediately likable despite her headstrong and provocative nature. What is great about Catherine Gund (What’s On Your Plate, Making Grace) and Daresha Kyi’s (first feature film) film is how unbiased and clear it is. You really feel up close and personal with Chavela Vargas as a result.
As an artist she was really tapped into human grief. Chavela could convey heartbreak like nobody’s business. On the flip side she also dealt with the opposite side of that emotional coin – love. With her voice she could bring an entire audience to tears, such was the depth of her talent. Against all odds and at a significant personal cost, she was out and proud at a time when it was dangerous to be so. A real rebel, Chavela lived life on the edge. She went through great highs personally and professionally, but also hit the bottom on several occasions. I believe that this is where her grasp of her subject matter and art came from.
The greatest accomplishment of the documentary is not that it only sheds light on the woman (that is important, yes, but…), but it encourages a more open mind from all who watch. We are challenged not to box people in and to accept people as they are. As they wish to be. Showing this woman, who, yes, was not perfect, but was committed to singing expressively and being open. Individual truth comes out as the victor.