Chavela Vargas is a name that you may not be familiar with – but after seeing Chavela, the stunning new documentary from co-directors Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi, the name of this Mexican musical icon will be hard to forget. Great music documentaries, which distill the essence of the artist’s persona in to an engaging narrative to old fans and newcomers alike, are hard to come by. But the life of Chavela Vargas is immediately engaging; from growing up as an outcast who would be disowned by her Costa Rican family and the religious community, to the final decades of her life touring the world with newfound best friend Pedro Almodovar (who used her music in films including 1995’s The Flower of My Secret), she lived a life equal parts harrowing and joyous, which this film manages to delve in to comprehensively.
Chavela easily slots in to the pantheon of great music documentaries by using techniques clearly inspired by the recent greats in the genre. Using a technique copied from Asif Kapadia’s Oscar winning documentary Amy, about the tragic life of Amy Winehouse, Chavela’s lyrics appear onscreen frequently, translated in to English and handwritten on to the screen like intimate diary entries. Chavela didn’t have personal demons to the same extent as Winehouse as she progressed through life – her sexuality was widely known even when closeted, but that didn’t stop her becoming a mainstream, iconic figure in Mexico and Spain, in both the music world and LGBT world.
Equally, her issues with alcohol abuse (at one point, two interviewees recall how she wouldn’t make her comeback unless she was given tequila prior to performing – transpiring that she’d never performed sober) didn’t have the same drastic outcome as in Winehouse’s life. But this doesn’t diminish the impact of her personal lyrics; she had the talent of singing about emotional demons, in an unforgettable “man voice”, and making them sound realistic, even if they were just lyrical fantasy.
The other documentary directors Gund and Kyi are clearly inspired by is Searching for Sugar Man, another Oscar winning music documentary from earlier this decade. That film was the story of an American folk singer, Rodriguez, who became inexplicably popular in South Africa (without his own knowledge), leading to many popular myths that he’d died. Decades later, he was tracked down and returned to the country as an arena rock superstar. Although told via an abridged narrative here, Chavela does touch on a self-imposed twelve year exile from the titular singer, where she settled down and helped raise her girlfriend’s young son. Rumours started to spread that she’d died – but she eventually returned to the stage more popular than before, all thanks to the unlikely help of Pedro Almodovar.
Almodovar is the most recognisable of the talking heads here – the interview footage with Chavela herself was mostly captured in the early nineties, and is only being heard for the first time now. Yet when hearing from passionate fans speaking on her behalf, be they Almodovar or a number of singer-songwriters, you can hear how much she has influenced their work- and how hard they fight to make sure her legacy lives on in the art they create. The old saying goes that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”; meaning it’s impossible to articulate why music speaks to an audience in a coherent manner, and that the songs should just speak for themselves. The interviewees here make that jokey phrase sound completely nonsensical, brimming with a passion for Chavela’s music that proves to be infectious. You may not like her stripped back, distinctively Mexican Rancheras, but you will definitely appreciate them after seeing this documentary.
One of the unexpected delights of this year’s Outfest lineup, Chavela is a film about the power of one woman’s music that is every bit as emotional as the songs she made legendary. You definitely won’t forget the name Chavela Vargas after watching this.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Music Box Films