Sunday, October 1, 2017

CHAVELA: Catherine Gund & Daresha Kyi's bio-doc offers us a chance to learn about a famous Latin American diva/chanteuse

What was it like to be a lesbian in Costa Rica and then Mexico nearly a century ago -- while at the same time being one of that latter country's most famous "cult" singers? The new documentary, CHAVELA, produced and directed by Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi, explores this iconic performer, Chavela Vargas, her early history and musical debut, struggles with alcohol, enforced retirement and eventual return to performing and finally enormous international acclaim. This is a wonderful and rich tale, and it's told here well enough, if you hold on through the very moving finale, to make the experience worthwhile, even for those of us, like TrustMovies, who had never before heard of this unusual woman.

The film-making team of Gund and Kyi, shown above with the former on the left, have assembled enough archival material to give us a visual approximation of Chavela's early years, along with the kind of parenting experience no child should ever have to endure.

This would insure the sort of loss and betrayal -- by both her family and the local priest -- from which the singer, shown at left in her younger years and below in the older, would never recover and which would set the stage, it seems, for all future relationships.

We hear about and see some of those relationships, via photos and film of the day, and in the interviews with a few of the folk who knew her then and are still around to tell us about her.

Chavela was a lesbian in a time and in a country when and where one simply did not acknowledge this. Still, she managed to live a rather remarkably "free" life -- performing, drinking and womanizing like any male celebrity of the day.

Rumors about her life and loves probably outdid her actual exploits -- but perhaps by not very much. Part of the film's fun comes from never quite being sure which is which.

Along the way we meet famous Mexican celebrities of the time -- from singer José Alfredo Jiménez to Frida Kahlo (there's some surprising archival footage of the latter!). Chavela's alcohol addiction is given its due, as is her triumphal return to cabaret that involves a nice Judy Garland moment. But as the tell-it-all documentary makes clear, this was one a hugely difficult, even violent woman, directing that violence to those around her, including the companion, below, right, who appears to have been most responsible for her success in later years.

Once film director Pedro Almodóvar appears on the scene as a huge fan of the singer (he used her songs in several of his films), Chavela makes her successful debut in Spain, and then, thanks to the "push" of the filmmaker, in Paris, too. Even to the Bellas Artes in Mexico. Finally, after some 40 years, the singer has moved from cabaret to actual theaters and concert halls.

The film's weakest point is that it never is able to let us experience the performer's songs at all fully. We see clips of her performing and see the lyrics translated into English, but the experience, both visually and aurally, is too distanced and puny to give us anything like full access so that we can understand why she is said to have commanded the stage so thoroughly. Yet her struggle, a continuing thing, proves tremendously moving -- in particular her life-long yearning for the love of a mother who never gave it. That, it would seem, was the single constant in Chavela's sad but long and full life.

From Music Box Films and running 93 minutes, the documentary has its theatrical premiere this Wednesday, October 4, at New York City's Film Forum, and then on Friday, October 6, opens in Los Angeles (at Landmark's NuArt), San Francisco (at Landmark's Opera Plaza), Berkeley (at Landmark's Shattuck Cinemas) and Santa Barbara (at the Riviera Theatre), and subsequently at another dozen cities across the country. Here in South Florida, it will play Miami's Tower Theater, Regal's South Beach and The Classic Gateway in Fort Lauderdale starting Friday, October 27. Click here and then click on THEATERS to view all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

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