Review: Chavela

Chavela in Chavela

Chavela is an inspiring documentary about the life of the famous Costa Rican-born Mexican singer Chavela Vargas. She died in 2012 at the age of 93 after a tempestuous, rebellious, lifetime filled with songs, love, and loneliness.

Chavela in Chavela

The film skips around between Chavela’s early life and career to her last days and her last performance.

She was rejected by her family for her “mannish” ways and fled to Mexico at an early age. The rancheras of Mexico called to her. She became a remarkable interpreter of soulful Mexican music about pain and loss.

There isn't a lesbian in Mexico who doesn't know Chavela Vargas
Chavela meant something to all the world, but to lesbians she was a symbol of freedom and equality.

She wore pants on stage, something no woman in Mexico dared to do. She sang love songs about women, something no woman in Mexico dared to do. She wooed and loved many women, some famous like Frida Kahlo and some not.

Chavela on stage
In performance, gathering her strength for the next line of a lyric.

Chavela’s story was told by several women who had loved her, as well as others who knew her and appreciated her talent like movie director Pedro Almodóvar.

There were videos of interviews she gave and many, many performance videos. I appreciated how much music was interwoven into Chavela’s story, because that was the part of her the public knew.

When she walked on a stage it was electrifying. Her deep voice, rich with emotion, mesmerized her audiences. Chavela’s voice could give you goosebumps, even if you didn’t understand the words.

In private she was prickly, angry, a raging alcoholic for many years, lonely even with lovers around, solitary, and mistreated by her record label.

Her favorite songwriter, Jose Alfredo Jimenez Jr., was a drinking buddy for years. When alcohol killed him, she kept on drinking. She finally realized she had to quit herself if she wanted to keep on living.

When she sobered up and started singing in public again, people were surprised. They thought she died.

Chavela
Chavela lived into her 90s and could still sing with power and soul until the end.

Almodóvar helped her launch her comeback late in her life. Her renewed career took her out of the cantinas of Mexico and into the opera houses of Spain and France where she performed before huge adoring crowds. She performed almost until the end, when she was frail and in a wheelchair.

She was remarkable in so many ways. She was courageous and unwilling to live any way but in her own truth. She was gifted as an interpreter of music. She was able to attract women with ease and loved many of them. Her strength and wisdom come through in the film as she talks about her life in various interviews.

Directed by Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi, Chavela is a tender and loving exploration of the life of a monumental figure in music history. The film is available on Amazon Video, YouTube, and other streamers. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

An earlier post with the trailer contains quite a bit of background information. Check it out.

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