Friday, October 13, 2017

Movie Review: "Chavela" (2017)

Director:  Catherine Gund & Daresha Kyi
Year: 2017
Rating: UR
Running Time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

The story of Chavela Vargas, the Costa Rican born Mexican singer.

Pieced together from videotaped interviews old and new, stock videos, and home movies, Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi have created a documentary chronicling the life and career of Isabel Vargas Lizano, better known as Chavela. She was a Costa Rican born Mexican singer best known for singing Mexican ranchera music. She was a singer unlike any other, breaking societal norms by wearing no make-up and dressing in pants and a poncho, much to the chagrin of her family and her community. Chavela was a lesbian, though she remained somewhat in the closet, at least publically and officially, for most of her life despite having relationships with numerous women, including world-famous artist Frida Kahlo. Times dictated that whatever happened on stage was acceptable up there at the moment, but the second an artist stepped foot off of it, it was time to hide who you really were. Chavela did officially announce what most already knew and officially came out in the early 90's when she was well into her 70's. From then on, she became a pioneer and icon for lesbians in Mexico. As one woman said, "there isn't a lesbian in Mexico who doesn't know who Chavela Vargas is."

Like most documentaries, this film consists mostly of interviews with friends and family members of Vargas to go along with archival footage of Chavela herself. It also contains numerous clips of her soulful music and impassioned performances. We really didn't know anything about her prior to watching this documentary and call it ignorance, but we really didn't even know she existed. Isn't that sad? Now, we know quite a bit about her and the fascinating person she was. The documentary doesn't shy away from Chavela's short-comings like her battles with alcoholism and her violent streak. She made quite the impact during her time here on earth. She was an not only an extremely interesting person who led an extremely interesting life, but she was a pioneer for women in music and women in Mexico.

As far as documentaries go, "Chavela" is pretty straightforward. It doesn't bring a whole lot of newness or cleverness to the table when it comes to exploring its subject, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It works as a vehicle for delivering information and telling anecdotes, and if you know nothing about Chavela, chances are, you will be enraptured by her compelling, iconic, trailblazing story. Unfortunately, because the vessel is so expected, this means the documentary is only interesting because its subject is. Luckily, Chavela was a captivating, daring, intense, fierce person, and hearing about her life straight from her mouth and those closest to her will make for an enjoyable viewing experience for those open to it. That being said, this style of documentary filmmaking can be a bit slow paced. It is a little tedious at times because a lot of people ate introduced and it can be hard to keep up with who is who, but it is worth it to hear the pain-stricken, languished, emotional verses in the songs Chavela sang throughout her life.

In the end, "Chavela" is worth checking out if you are a fan of music, if you're interested in true life LGBTQIA stories, and/or documentaries about people you know nothing about.

"Chavela" is playing locally in San Diego at the Arclight La Jolla and the Landmark Hillcrest starting October 13th, 2017.

My Rating: 7.5/10
BigJ's Rating: 7/10
IMDB's Rating: ~8.0/10
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 87%
Do we recommend this movie: Sure, why not?

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