Monday, June 19, 6:30 p.m., Castro Theatre: Bay Area première
Thursday, June 22, 7:00 p.m., Piedmont Theatre, Oakland
Isabel “Chavela” Vargas (1919 – 2012) was born in Costa Rica, but came to prominence in Mexico, singing what are still considered the definitive versions of many songs, mostly in the popular category of “ranchera” music, songs lamenting the end of a love affair or some other heartbreak. Although Chavela did not come out publicly as a lesbian until late in life, she was from the very beginning openly and overtly a gender rebel, wearing pants when that was unheard of for a woman and singing songs written from the perspective of a man seducing a woman without flipping the pronouns. She disappeared into obscurity for more than a decade because of various personal problems (particularly alcohol abuse) that impinged on her professional life, but she made a glorious comeback, playing not only small cantinas but great concert halls in Mexico City, Madrid, and Paris, proving that she was an enduring cultural icon.
Documentarians Catherine Gund (Born to Fly, Frameline 38) and Daresha Kyi pieced together archival interviews from Chavela’s later years, footage of earlier performances, and contemporary interviews with people she knew personally and professionally, prominently including renowned filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar. It’s a remarkably well-rounded portrait of a remarkable artist and a person who was both a stalwart individual and a fragile human being. She endured misogyny and homophobia but struggled with tequila and vanity. She is not well known to anglophone audiences in the United States, but she is deservedly famous in Latin America. This skillfully crafted documentary will undoubtedly help spread her legacy to a wider audience. Highly recommended. The Guardian put it well: “Donald Trump’s ultimate nightmare: a Mexican lesbian diva who can wring your very soul.”
Note to hearing-impaired viewers: the bulk of the film is in Spanish with English subtitles; however, several brief segments are in English without subtitles.
• IMDb page • Official website • trailer •