‘Chavela’ Review: Powerful Doc Captures Singer Chavela Vargas, Mexican and LGBT Icon

From Vargas’ affair with Frida Kahlo to a late-in-life career boost from Pedro Almodóvar, this dazzling film chronicles an extraordinary life

Androgynous long before it was stylish, Chavela Vargas burst onto the Mexican music scene in 1942 in a long braid, trousers and a poncho, tequila bottle in hand and singing like a man. The captivating documentary “Chavela,” directed by Catherine Gund (“Born to Fly”) and Daresha Kyi, mesmerizes with its impressionistic blend of archival photos, musical performances, concert footage and candid interviews with the legendary singer herself, as well with her ardent friends like Pedro Almodóvar and former lovers.

One of her most famous paramours was Frida Kahlo: Their passionate affair comes to life via Vargas’s eloquent recollections, and Gund and Kyi’s well-chosen photos of the two together. Vargas vividly recalls the first time she laid eyes on Kahlo: “She was like a vision. When I saw her face, her eyes, I thought she wasn’t human, that she was from another world. Her eyebrows together were a swallow in mid-flight.”

Vargas’ poetic inclinations are chronicled in this meditative and in-depth film mostly through her rough and tender renditions of ranchera songs. The lyrics, translated into English, are artfully depicted in old-fashioned handwriting across the screen. Her interpretation of classic Mexican music was deeply emotional, nakedly capturing Vargas’ sense of lonely yearning. “I offer my pain to people who come to see me,” she said. “I bring baggage that I open up onstage.”

Kyi and Gund have unpacked the most intriguing items in that baggage. They unearthed a treasure trove of black-and-white photos from the 1930s through the ’60s, as well as striking footage selected from 70 years of performances. Gund first met the uncompromising singer in 1992. Her video footage and starstruck interview forms the heart of this cinematic love letter. She and Kyi give us a riveting glimpse into Vargas’ psyche, yet they also preserve the mysterious allure she carefully cultivated.

What most strikes the viewer in listening to Vargas and the insightful observations of those who knew her is that she was a profoundly complex, even contradictory, person. She fell in love a lot, but found the notion of eternal love “corny and old-fashioned.” She loved being on stage, but craved solitude. She was an artistic rebel, yet she respected Mexico’s patriarchal society. A beauty in her youth, she looked happiest in her own skin as she grew old and weathered. She dressed like a man, but took years to come out openly as lesbian, at 81, though she had boldly bedded celebrities and the wives of influential politicians and intellectuals.

She became an LGBT icon, especially in Mexico, long before she was officially out. “For the lesbian community, Chavela is the most important woman in Mexican history,” says former Mexican senator Patria Jimenez. “She opened a path for us from the moment she started singing in Mexico. There isn’t a lesbian in Mexico who doesn’t know Chavela Vargas and who doesn’t love and adore her.”

If there is one, the filmmakers didn’t interview her. At times the documentary feels like it could use some comments from people who didn’t fully admire Vargas. While not hagiography, “Chavela” might have benefitted from talking to someone who had something less than positive to say about Vargas. While a few of those who knew her allude to her abrupt temper or violent moments, usually fueled by alcohol, they laugh it off, emphasizing her seductive charm and sense of fun.

Vargas was born in Costa Rica in 1919 and died in Cuernavaca, Mexico in 2012, at the age of 93. The filmmakers’ focus is on Vargas’s distinctively burnished voice and her role as a fierce lesbian icon. In her final decade she played to sold-out crowds in Spain and in Mexico City’s grand Art Nouveau theater, Palacio de Bellas Artes. She plumbed the depths of the human spirit in her music, but she never got over a sense of abandonment and torment from her childhood. Almodóvar played a key role in Vargas’ later career, kick-starting her triumphant comeback. “She couldn’t conceive of life without the stage,” he said. “She needed it in order to keep breathing.”

The film is more concerned with these dramatic observations and romantic impressions than in getting bogged down with biographical details. Gund and Kyi don’t mention that Vargas recorded 80 albums, though we do learn that she felt cheated by her record company.

Vargas (christened Isabel) muses about inventing her “Chavela” persona, after running away to Mexico as a teenager. She initially dressed more traditionally, “with long hair, make-up and high heels. But it didn’t work. Suddenly I dressed more strangely and things took off.”

When she hit Mexico City’s bohemian club scene, she broke the mold of the ranchera singer, drinking till she dropped and toting a gun. Though she was taunted and people called her ugly names, she learned to cope. “Mexico taught me to be who I am,” she said. “Not with hugs and kisses, but with punches and slaps.” Those psychic blows are visible on her increasingly lined face as we watch Vargas age over the years.

When she wasn’t playing the guitar and singing about love and loss, Vargas co-starred in movies, always playing the tough gal. “To become Chavela she had to be stronger, more macha and more drunk than any other singing cowboy around,” recalls human rights lawyer and former lover Alicia Perez Duarte. As a lesbian in a patriarchal society she felt marginalized, and she channeled that pain through her art. “She established a deep dialogue like she was speaking to you,” notes Almodóvar. “It’s like she’s always been an old friend.”

But for 15 years, her constant companion was liquor. Her life was nearly destroyed by it. “Alcoholism,” she told interviewers, “is more of a psychic illness, one of loneliness and abandonment. Of being surrounded by people and feeling nothing.” After this revelation Gund and Kyi train the camera on a tight close up of Vargas’s dark hooded eyes, unutterably tragic. It’s one of many poignant moments in this artful documentary.

Vargas’s final decades are possibly her most successful, and certainly seemed her most peaceful. She was proud to be a trailblazer, but when asked about where she’d been, at 71, she didn’t want to look back. “Let’s start with where I’m going.”

And, as told in “Chavela,” this charismatic artist’s journey over her 90-plus years is thoroughly enthralling.