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