BEYOND ALL PREDICTIONS
Uplifting Netflix doc recounts rise of astrologer Walter Mercado
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
The dramatically attired astrologer Walter Mercado is profiled in the documentary “Mucho Mucho Amor.”
“Mucho Mucho Amor” features a poignant moment when Walter Mercado (left) meets Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Charlie Daniels performs during pregame festivities before Super Bowl XXXIX between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles in Jacksonville, Florida, in 2005.
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.”