Dir: Catherine Gund, Daresha Kyi | M/A/D | Music/Art/Design | Documentaries | USA | 2017 | 92 mins
Sunday, Oct. 1, 9:30 p.m. | International Village
Thursday, Oct. 5, 9 p.m. | Vancouver Playhouse
Monday, Oct. 9, 2:15 p.m. | SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts
Surprisingly, the documentary about the powerful Chavela opens quietly. The film’s namesake sits serenely, beautifully handsome in her old age. Despite her aging exterior, Chavela’s famous voice is still elegantly commanding and captivating.
Using never before seen footage shot 20 years before Chavela’s death, directors Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi guide us through the striking story of the trail-blazer performer. The documentary is simple in approach, using Chavela’s natural charisma to unravel her fascinating story.
Chavela is the stuff of rags-to-riches folklore. An excruciatingly restrictive upbringing in Costa Rica left Chavela profoundly lonely and desperate for love. Her ascendance into fame is dizzying but not surprising; Chavela channels this agony into her music. Her raw talent captivated audiences across Mexico and forever changed the traditionally masculine world of Ranchera music. Chavela soars in these tragic performances; her brilliance is undeniable. Gund and Kyi capture Chavela’s aura of mystery, naturally handsome looks, and courage effortlessly with prolonged footage of her forceful performances.
Chavela is a striking sight. Refusing to subscribe to the traditional beauty standards of Mexican music at the time, she adorns a simple Poncho and often disregards makeup entirely. It’s easy to mistake her as a man. Unapologetically ambiguous, Chavela’s lack of regard for traditional gender roles was massively rebellious in traditional Mexico. To gain respect in the macho world of Ranchera, she created a reputation of infamy by partying, womanizing, and out-drinking the men.
This lifestyle eventually proved to be difficult for Chavela, whose dangerous addiction to alcohol almost ruined her career and almost all the valuable relationships in her life. Subverting traditional standards of womanhood also proved difficult, as her sexuality was a closely guarded secret until late in her life.
Chavela, in all her complexity, is ultimately human. Despite her resounding loneliness and raw hedonism, Chavela’s story is filled with joy, redemption, and passion. From bedding Ava Gardner, winning the hearts of the public, and performing to movie royalty, the documentary nicely captures what a magnetic force she was.
Gund and Kyiallowing demonstrate Chavela’s transformative journey vividly, and I found myself falling in love with her story. Chavela is a fantastic documentary demonstrating the beauty in human fragility and the resilience in honest art.
Watch the trailer here