CHAVELA, doc­u­men­tary, not rated, in Span­ish with sub­ti­tles, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts,

Pasatiempo - - TERRELL’S TUNE-UP - Ranchera Chavela, Chavela

“I of­fer my pain to ev­ery­one who comes to see me,” says the fiery chanteuse Chavela Var­gas (1919-2012) in an af­fect­ing new doc­u­men­tary about her life and legacy. “And it’s beau­ti­ful.”

In­deed it is. Co-di­rec­tors Cather­ine Gund and Dare­sha Kyi tell the ex­tra­or­di­nary story of the singer, whom di­rec­tor Pe­dro Almod­ó­var called “la voz áspera de la ter­nura” (the rough voice of ten­der­ness), in a film that is as mar­bled with pathos as Var­gas’ life it­self.

Born in Costa Rica, Var­gas was so­cially iso­lated as a child be­cause of her boy­ish man­ner. Aban­doned by her par­ents fol­low­ing their divorce, she es­caped to Mex­ico as a teenager. After singing on the streets for years, she be­came renowned for her stripped-down per­for­mance style in the cabarets of Mex­ico City, where, swing­ing a bot­tle of tequila, she sang tra­di­tion­ally ma­cho bal­lads with ragged, choked emo­tion in an ar­rest­ing voice made grav­elly by drink and cigars, never chang­ing the gen­ders in the laments she sang over lost women. Her most fa­mous song, “Ma­co­rina,” is a poet’s trib­ute to a Cuban cour­te­san that Var­gas set to mu­sic, with its sen­sual re­peated plea to Ma­co­rina to “put your hand here.” “She al­ways sounded like she’d been torn apart. As if she’d been born with the wounds of life and death,” cabaret owner Je­susa Ro­driguez says.

Mag­net­i­cally beau­ti­ful, Var­gas of­ten dressed in men’s clothes and en­gaged in many high-pro­file les­bian af­fairs, in­clud­ing with Frida Kahlo and sev­eral wives of Mex­i­can politi­cians. Of El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor’s wed­ding to Mike Todd in Aca­pulco, she says in the film, “Ev­ery­body went to bed with some­one. I woke up with Ava Gard­ner.” Her ap­petite for drink earned her fur­ther no­to­ri­ety — un­til it de­stroyed her ca­reer and sent her into ob­scu­rity, with most Mex­i­cans as­sum­ing she had died. But she found so­bri­ety later in life, with enough time to earn a 20-year re­nais­sance singing in Spain and abroad, spurred on by the sup­port of Almod­ó­var, who fea­tured per­for­mances by Var­gas in sev­eral of his movies.

De­spite her mas­cu­line sen­si­bil­ity, Var­gas re­marks in the film, “What a beau­ti­ful thing it is to be born a woman,” and the strong sis­ter­hood of in­ter­view sub­jects here, which in­clude former lovers, busi­ness as­so­ciates, and friends, at­test to the proud fem­i­nist legacy she left in Mex­ico. She may have sung of the soul’s wounds, but makes it clear that in the end, the naked tragedy she of­fered up to her au­di­ences led to cathar­sis and, fi­nally, joy. — Molly Boyle

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