SIFF Face the Music 2017 Preview: Chavela


(Directed by Catherine Gund, 2017, 90 minutes)

Festival Screenings:
Friday, May 19 at 6PM – SIFF Cinema Uptown
Saturday, May 20 at 11AM- AMC Pacific Place
[Director Catherine Gund scheduled to attend the Friday screening]

Chavela Vargas seems an ideal candidate for a documentary. Born in Costa Rica, Chavela rose to fame in 1950s Mexico City as an androgynous ranchera singer, gaining notoriety for her heartfelt, intense performances, drinking habits, and barely hidden lesbianism. However, as a result of her intensifying alcoholism, Chavela’s career became stalled, the singer moving to rural Mexico before eventually finding sobriety and staging a late-career comeback. Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi’s documentary (titled Chavela) attempts to portray Chavela’s entire life over 90 minutes, giving particular emphasis to the singer’s personal life, romantic relationships, and struggle with addiction through engaging interviews, many recorded with Chavela before her 2012 death.

Though undoubtedly an ambitious undertaking, Chavela succeeds in large part to the woman herself. Gund spends much time analyzing Chavela’s persona, which broke down and combined codes of femininity and masculinity to create a singular, often confrontational musical presence. In addition, the musician’s complex spirit is well conveyed through the film. The filmmakers dwell on Chavela’s struggles with addiction and internalized homophobia, while also refusing to make Chavela into a martyr. The complexity of Chavela’s portrayal adds to the documentary.

Ultimately, however, the film perhaps underemphasizes Chavela’s greatest quality: her voice. At once gravelly, tender, vulnerable, and tequila-soaked, it quickly becomes clear in the film that Chavela’s voice is essential to her iconic status, in conjunction with her early transgressions regarding gender and sexuality. Though her singing is given still moments of isolation, it perhaps is not permitted enough time to help tell her story, working in tandem with the articulate interviews with those who loved and remember her.

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