Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi’s Chavela is an impressionistic and elliptical look into the life of ranchera singer-guitarist Chavela Vargas. From beginning to end, the documentary is guided not by narration, but by Vargas’s memories (through an extensive archival interview) and recollections from those who knew her at various points in her life. The filmmakers explore at length disturbing accounts of Vargas’s alcohol-fueled emotional abuse toward friends and lovers, but their diligence doesn’t extend to the singer’s artistry and position as an icon. Although a parade of talking heads insists that Vargas’s influence has been immense, the film neglects to provide enough contextual information on Vargas’s career to support the assertion.
Breaking onto the 1950s Mexico City music scene with her passionate live performances and taste for men’s fashion, Vargas saw her career sputter due to severe alcoholism only for it to rebound with a new generation of fans who positioned her as both a musical and gay icon. The film’s hopscotching-in-time structure, informed by specific remembrances of Vargas’s life, is refreshingly unconventional. Throughout, Gund and Kyi include extended live performance footage of Vargas, where her notably passionate theatrics are on full display, and the directors incorporate time- or theme-appropriate archival performances to complement a specific detail about Vargas from one of her acquaintances, such as how the singer coped with a lifelong feeling of loneliness. The footage accompanied by the remarks subtly expands the study of Vargas’s persona, since Gund and Kyi allow us to see how Vargas synthesizes her personal problems into her unique art on stage.
The film’s desire for specificity and understanding of cause and effect isn’t as intense when detailing Vargas’s daily life as a musician, as evidenced by a sequence concerning Mexico City’s hypocritical “macho” culture back in the ’50s, when performers could act or dress however they wanted on stage but not off of it. While the moment is fascinating as a history lesson, the filmmakers never elaborate on how Vargas thrived within this system or stuck out from other performers. Gund and Kyi show restraint in worshipping Vargas as a god-like figure through most of the film, but without the necessary context to substantiate the view that Vargas’s influence is lasting, Chavela’s closing moments, of throngs of crowds clapping and cheering Vargas, feel more like hollow praise than a modest tip of the cap to a music legend.