BE­YOND ALL PRE­DIC­TIONS

Up­lift­ing Net­flix doc re­counts rise of as­trologer Wal­ter Mer­cado

Chicago Sun-Times - - ENTERTAINM­ENT - RICHARD ROEPER MOVIE COLUM­NIST rroeper@sun­times.com | @RichardERo­eper

Mi­ami In­ter­na­tional Air­port, the sum­mer of 2019. The fa­mously flam­boy­ant as­trologer Wal­ter Mer­cado has just ar­rived from Puerto Rico, and we are with him as a golf cart whisks the ailing 87-year-old through the con­course.

Mer­cado had mys­te­ri­ously van­ished from the pub­lic eye nearly a decade ago — and it has been 20, maybe even 30 years since he was at the peak of his TV and ra­dio fame. It would hardly be a sur­prise if he sailed through the air­port with­out be­ing rec­og­nized.

No chance. One by one, mostly much younger fans reach out to shake Wal­ter’s hand, to pose for a selfie with him, to tell him they watched him all the time grow­ing up. It’s as if an icon from their child­hood has sud­denly ap­peared in front of them, and they are beam­ing with joy.

This scene takes place in the fas­ci­nat­ing and up­lift­ing Net­flix doc­u­men­tary “Mu­cho Mu­cho Amor: The Wal­ter Mer­cado Story.” By then, we have learned the im­prob­a­ble and amaz­ing story of Mer­cado’s rise to fame, we have been daz­zled by his ground­break­ing the­atri­cal­ity, we have seen his last­ing im­pact on His­panic cul­ture and the LGBTQ com­mu­nity — and we have come to ad­mire him and feel grate­ful the world was graced by the unique and sin­gu­lar Wal­ter Mer­cado.

Film­mak­ers Cristina Costan­tini and Ka­reem Tab­sch have fash­ioned an il­lu­mi­nat­ing and in­sight­ful doc­u­men­tary/bi­og­ra­phy, told for the most part in chrono­log­i­cal or­der, with chap­ters of Mer­cado’s life clev­erly in­tro­duced via vi­brant tarot card an­i­ma­tion with ti­tles such as “The Ma­gi­cian,” “The Star,” “The Cloaked Man” and “The Tower.” There’s a rel­a­tively brief but com­pre­hen­sive look at Mer­cado’s early years, start­ing with his child­hood in ru­ral Puerto Rico in the 1930s.

Ac­cord­ing to Mer­cado’s telling of the tale, as a lit­tle boy he dis­cov­ered a wounded bird and lit­er­ally breathed life into it. And when a neigh­bor woman who wit­nessed this mir­a­cle spread the story, the towns­folk be­gan lin­ing up to have an au­di­ence with young Wal­ter, in the hopes he could heal an ail­ment or an­swer a prayer.

Fast-for­ward to Mer­cado as a hand­some young ac­tor who was al­ready em­brac­ing his flair for dra­matic hair­styles, makeup and col­or­ful at­tire as he acted in te­len­ov­e­las and gave as­tro­log­i­cal read­ings on the side. One day, while still in cos­tume from a soap opera, Wal­ter was set to do live pro­mos but in­stead did an adlibbed, 15-minute horoscope. It was such an im­me­di­ate hit, he was soon given his own daily show.

By the 1970s and 1980s, Mer­cado was sport­ing lav­ish capes and jewelry that would be the envy of Elton John and had be­come an in­ter­na­tional sen­sa­tion on TV and ra­dio, with his fame in the United States grow­ing af­ter ap­pear­ances on Howard Stern’s ra­dio show and Sally Jessy Raphael’s TV talk show. (The title of the doc comes from Mer­cado’s fa­mous sign-off: “Mu­cho Mu­cho Amor!”)

The doc in­cludes in­valu­able in­ter­views with Mer­cado’s long­time as­sis­tant and con­stant com­pan­ion, Wil­lie Acosta; a num­ber of fam­ily mem­bers, in­clud­ing adult nieces who clearly adore their beloved un­cle and are con­stantly hov­er­ing nearby; and Mer­cado’s for­mer man­ager, Bill Bakula, who is given credit for cat­a­pult­ing Mer­cado’s ca­reer into the strato­sphere but becomes the vil­lain in this story when he en­gi­neers com­plete con­trol over Mer­cado’s past and present work and even the rights to the name “Wal­ter Mer­cado.”

But, of course, the real star is Mer­cado him­self, who wel­comed the film­mak­ers into his home for ex­ten­sive con­ver­sa­tion and ob­ser­va­tion. In his mid-80s and mov­ing about gin­gerly due to a va­ri­ety of ail­ments, Mer­cado is nonethe­less still as whim­si­cal and play­ful and up­beat as ever. Pressed about his sex­u­al­ity and the long­time ru­mors he and Wil­lie were more than just friends, he launches into a mono­logue about how his def­i­ni­tion of sex is quite dif­fer­ent from most. Is he a vir­gin? “The only one in town,” he says with a coy smile.

“Mu­cho Mu­cho Amor” doesn’t shy away from Mer­cado’s le­gal bat­tles and the crit­i­cism he received for join­ing the no­to­ri­ous “Psy­chic Friends Net­work,” which shame­lessly preyed on naïve and of­ten fi­nan­cially strug­gling au­di­ences with a 900-num­ber scam. Mer­cado de­fends him­self by say­ing he never promised lot­tery wins or a fairy­tale mar­riage to any­one, ever, and that he was all about em­brac­ing tenets of Chris­tian­ity, Hin­duism, Bud­dhism and, well, astrol­ogy, to send out pos­i­tive vibes and urge his fans to wake up every morn­ing de­ter­mined to have a good day. He clearly was a pos­i­tive in­flu­ence on millions, as ev­i­denced in a touch­ing scene when Lin-Manuel Mi­randa has the op­por­tu­nity to meet him and is starstruck to the point of tears.

The ar­rival scene in Mi­ami is a pre­cur­sor to the Mi­ami His­tory Museum’s cel­e­bra­tion of the 50th an­niver­sary of Mer­cado’s first ma­jor TV show. On the big night, Mer­cado is clad in a spec­tac­u­lar and sparkling gold en­sem­ble and is car­ried on a golden throne into the ador­ing crowd. Just a few months later, Wal­ter Mer­cado would pass away — but this al­ready looks like his vi­sion of how he would en­ter heaven.

Char­lie Daniels, the South­ern rock leg­end be­hind the iconic hit “The Devil Went Down to Ge­or­gia,” died Mon­day morn­ing, his pub­li­cist con­firmed. The coun­try mu­sic singer was 83.

Mr. Daniels died at Sum­mit Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Her­mi­tate, Tennessee. The of­fi­cial cause of death was a hem­or­rhagic stroke.

Mr. Daniels was a Coun­try Mu­sic Hall of Fame in­ductee and a mem­ber of the Grand Ole Opry. Known for his fid­dling and gui­tar prow­ess, he was also in­ducted into the Mu­si­cians Hall of Fame.

He co-founded The Jour­ney Home Project in 2014 to help vet­er­ans of the U.S. mil­i­tary.

“There are few artists that touched so many dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions in our busi­ness than Char­lie Daniels did,” Sarah Tra­h­ern, Coun­try Mu­sic As­so­ci­a­tion CEO, said in a state­ment. “Today, our com­mu­nity has lost an in­no­va­tor and ad­vo­cate of coun­try mu­sic.”

Mr. Daniels had suf­fered what was de­scribed as a mild stroke in Jan­uary 2010 and had a heart pace­maker im­planted in 2013 but con­tin­ued to per­form.

Mr. Daniels, a singer, gui­tarist and fid­dler, started out as a ses­sion mu­si­cian, even play­ing on Bob Dy­lan’s “Nashville Sky­line” ses­sions. Be­gin­ning in the early 1970s, his five-piece band toured end­lessly, some­times do­ing 250 shows a year.

“I can ask peo­ple where they are from, and if they say, ‘Waukegan,’ I can say I’ve played there. If they say, ‘Ba­ton Rouge,’ I can say I’ve played there. There’s not a city we haven’t played in,” Mr. Daniels said in 1998.

Mr. Daniels per­formed at the White House, at the Su­per Bowl, through­out Europe and of­ten for troops in the Mid­dle East.

He played him­self in the 1980 John Tra­volta movie “Ur­ban Cow­boy” and was closely iden­ti­fied with the rise of coun­try mu­sic gen­er­ated by that film.

“I’ve kept peo­ple em­ployed for over 20 years and never missed a pay­roll,” Daniels said in 1998. That same year, he received the Pi­o­neer Award from the Acad­emy of Coun­try Mu­sic.

In the 1990s, Mr. Daniels soft­ened some of his lyrics from his ear­lier days, when he of­ten was em­broiled in con­tro­versy.

In “The Devil Went Down to Ge­or­gia,” a 1979 song about a fid­dling duel be­tween the devil and a whip­per­snap­per named Johnny, Mr. Daniels orig­i­nally called the devil a “son of a bitch” but changed it to “son of a gun.”

In his 1980 hit “Long Haired Coun­try Boy,” he used to sing about be­ing “stoned in the morn­ing” and “drunk in the af­ter­noon.” Mr. Daniels changed it to: “I get up in the morn­ing, I get down in the af­ter­noon.”

“I guess I’ve mel­lowed in my old age,” Mr. Daniels said in 1998.

“The Devil Went Down to Ge­or­gia” was No. 1 on the coun­try charts in 1979 and No. 3 on the pop charts. It was voted sin­gle of the year by the Coun­try Mu­sic As­so­ci­a­tion.

Mr. Daniels hosted reg­u­lar Vol­un­teer Jam con­certs in Nashville in which the per­form­ers usu­ally were not an­nounced in ad­vance. En­ter­tain­ers at the shows in­cluded Don Hen­ley, Amy Grant, James Brown, Pat Boone, Bill Mon­roe, Wil­lie Nel­son, Vince Gill, the Lynyrd Skynyrd Band, Alabama, Billy Joel, Lit­tle Richard, B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eu­gene Fodor and Woody Her­man.

“He loved his God, he loved his fam­ily and he loved his coun­try. And we all loved him!!! He lived it and breathed it every day. What a great Amer­i­can!” pi­o­neer­ing mu­sic leg­end Brenda Lee said in a state­ment.

Con­tem­po­rary coun­try artists Luke Bryan and Ja­son Aldean also paid trib­ute to Mr. Daniels on so­cial me­dia. “What a hero. A true pa­triot, Chris­tian, and coun­try mu­sic icon. Pray­ers to his fam­ily,” Bryan said in a tweet.

“I will truly miss my friend and fel­low Coun­try Mu­sic Hall Of Fame mem­ber,” coun­try mu­sic star Charley Pride said. “He was one of the most hon­est and gen­uinely nice peo­ple in the busi­ness. I will miss our talks. We shared lots of mem­o­ries and sup­ported each other. My pray­ers are with his fam­ily, friends and col­leagues.”

Singer-song­writer Lee Greenwood and his wife, Kim, said in a joint state­ment: “Char­lie was such a beloved part of our com­mu­nity!

He was a great friend and a fel­low pa­triot. I will al­ways cher­ish the count­less shows we worked to­gether over the decades and our back­stage talks. He leaves an im­mea­sur­able mark on coun­try and South­ern rock mu­sic.”

Mr. Daniels, a na­tive of Wilm­ing­ton, North Carolina, played on sev­eral Dy­lan al­bums as a Nashville record­ing ses­sion gui­tarist in the late 1960s, in­clud­ing “New Morn­ing” and “Self-Por­trait.”

At the age of 71, he was in­vited to join the epit­ome of Nashville’s mu­sic es­tab­lish­ment, the Grand Ole Opry.

He said in 1998 that he kept tour­ing so much be­cause “I have never played those notes per­fectly. I’ve never sung every song per­fectly. I’m in com­pe­ti­tion to be bet­ter tonight than I was last night and to be bet­ter to­mor­row than tonight.”

Mr. Daniels said his fa­vorite place to play was “any­where with a good crowd and a good paycheck.”

“Char­lie Daniels was an in­cred­i­ble mu­si­cian, en­ter­tainer and friend,” Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jerry Lee Lewis said in a state­ment. “I was thrilled to get to know him on the road and in the stu­dio through­out our ca­reers. He will al­ways be re­mem­bered as a pa­triot and a faith-filled Chris­tian above all else.”

“I CAN ASK PEO­PLE WHERE THEY ARE FROM, AND IF THEY SAY, ‘WAUKEGAN,’ I CAN SAY I’VE PLAYED THERE. IF THEY SAY, ‘BA­TON ROUGE, I CAN SAY I’VE PLAYED THERE. THERE’S NOT A CITY WE HAVEN’T PLAYED IN.” CHAR­LIE DANIELS, in 1998

NET­FLIX

The dra­mat­i­cally at­tired as­trologer Wal­ter Mer­cado is pro­filed in the doc­u­men­tary “Mu­cho Mu­cho Amor.”

NET­FLIX

“Mu­cho Mu­cho Amor” fea­tures a poignant mo­ment when Wal­ter Mer­cado (left) meets Lin-Manuel Mi­randa.

AP

Char­lie Daniels per­forms dur­ing pregame fes­tiv­i­ties be­fore Su­per Bowl XXXIX be­tween the New England Pa­tri­ots and the Philadel­phia Ea­gles in Jack­sonville, Florida, in 2005.

AP

Char­lie Daniels (cen­ter) joins mem­bers of the Char­lie Daniels Band with their Grammy Awards in Los An­ge­les in 1980. They won best coun­try vo­cal per­for­mance by a group for their hit “The Devil Went Down to Ge­or­gia.”

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