No Ordinary Anything
Chavela Vargas was no ordinary singer, no ordinary woman and no ordinary human being. She was a “llorona” (Spanish for someone who cries a lot) and her voice was neither clear nor sweet— it was harsh and filled with lament and she was able to shatter hearts and make listeners cry. “Chavela”, the documentary, explores her life from her birth in Costa Rica to her rise in her chosen homeland Mexico and much beloved Spain. It is a totally moving experience. Chavela’s music was deeply rooted in her assertive temperament and desire to live. She loved women as intensively as she could, and she was entirely unapologetic of her homosexuality. Her relations were profound and yet dysfunctional (she could become violent), and she counted Frida Kahlo and the wives of many important politicians amongst those whom she loved.
Chavela’s e approach to sexuality made she her an icon and inspiration to lesbians in Mexico and elsewhere. She insisted on wearing masculine clothes and behaving manly at a time when homosexuality was frowned upon. She was often described as a “macha”, the “feminine” of macho. She joked that she looked like a transvestite when she was dressed up in female attire. At old age she spoke frankly about her sexual experiences and how she had to avoid using the word lesbian at young age.
To tell Chavela’s story, the film blends historical footage, numerous interviews with Chavela herself and statements by her surviving lovers and close friends the Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar and the singer Miguel Bosé. We learn that the most difficult moments of her life came when she struggled with alcoholism and refrained from singing for 12 years. She gave up alcohol and resumed singing at old age, performing extensively in Spain and finally at the Bellas Arts Theatre in Mexico City. Her dream was to die on stage while singing but that did not happen; she died peacefully in 2012 at the age of 93 in Mexico after having lived life to the fullest, without regrets.
Chavela introduced the world to soulful Mexican ranchero music, the likes of which had never been heard before. She would strip all the happiness out of these songs and make it the music of the wounded soul that represented the tragic end of love. However as famous as she was for her music, what really makes her story so compelling was the fact she was just as famous for her appetite for beautiful women and tequila, both of which she consumed in large quantities.
She shocked and outraged the public by insisting on dressing like a man and this was one of the reasons that her early career was restricted to singing in small cabarets. The fact that she drank so heavily made her unreliable but to her loyal band of fans in society’s underground, Chavela was a real star. Her obsession was to party so hard with the male musicians who traveled with her; she wanted to prove she could not only drink more than them and because she was stronger and even more macho than them led to her downfall. For a period of fifteen years, she lived in poverty because she could not get gigs and she used whatever money she had to buy alcohol. It was then that she met her long time lover, Alicia Elena Pérez, who takes a lot of the credit for finally getting to stop drinking, but it is the filmmaker Pedro Almodovar who is responsible for rescuing Chavela’s career and launching her in big venues like the Olympia in Paris. Almodovar tells how once he discovered Chavela and invited her to Spain to perform. He loved her performances that he incorporated her music in to his movies and became her personal champion.
Directors Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi capture Chavela’s spirit through of clips of her performing through various parts of her life and career and these show the true essence of why she was so loved.