A decade ago, Marion Cotillard won an Oscar for her portrayal of Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose, Olivier Dahan’s biopic about the French chanteuse who enthralled a nation (the world?) with her deeply personal interpretations of songs about, among other things, love lost and dreams unrealized. To this day, Piaf’s voice is unmistakeable, with an emotion and depth that only comes from living through the worst life can throw at you and finding your way out to the other side of it all.
Around the time Piaf drank herself to death in 1963, another iconic voice was emerging on the other side of the world, one that never quite found the global recognition Piaf still enjoys, but one that is just as evocative, powerful and essential. Born in Costa Rica four years after Piaf, Chavela Vargas (birth name: Isabel Vargas Lizano) outlived her French counterpart by some 50 years. Herself a volatile alcoholic behind a powerhouse voice, those additional decades proved time enough for Chavela to sober up and enjoy a second wave of success just after the turn of the millennium. It’s that comeback that becomes a capstone in Chavela, the new documentary from Music Box Films chronicling this trailblazing artist’s roller coaster life.
The movie opens as filmmaker Catherine Gund (who co-directed with Daresha Kyi) interviews an already aged Chavela in 1991, where friends outside Mexico City helped Gund arrange the face-to-face meeting. It’s immediately evident that Chavela has lived life; every wrinkle and groove in her tanned face is a story about a weekend bender with Hollywood elites on vacation in Acapulco or a clandestine romance not with powerful politicians and businessmen but with their wives. In her crisp button-down shirt and short white hair, she laughs easily and commands the room as she explains how unheard of it was to wear trousers, smoke cigars, eschew make-up and all the trappings as a woman performing on stage in “those days.” And sure, everyone knew she was a lesbian, but god forbid anyone ever say the word.
From there, we’re taken back to Chavela’s difficult childhood, as she’s sent to live with an aunt and uncle who don’t want her before she runs away to Mexico City, where she sings on the streets to earn enough to eat. Its that voice, rich as satin and deep as a canyon, that gets her everywhere she’ll go from there. That includes into a creative partnership with one of Mexico’s most renowned composers, José Alfredo, a working relationship that would catapult her to fame. A chance encounter with Frida Kahlo confirms for Chavela her own attraction to women, as the two fall into a meaningful, if brief, affair. Through archival footage of her performances, the Spanish lyrics translated to English on screen, and vintage photos of the parties and cabarets where she performed, it’s easy to see how this outsider who came from nothing fell head first into a world of decadence and celebrity and success.
Halfway into the 93-minute running time, it seems as though our protagonist’s story has been told, triumphant as it is. And yet there’s still a lot of movie to fill. Like all legends, it’s Chavela’s comeback that makes her already impressive story exceptional. Her longtime partner threatens to leave forever if she doesn’t stop drinking, so she does. And with the chance to perform again, she’s tempted to turn to tequila before the show, loosening up like she did for sets so long ago. But her newfound support system helps her resist, and what a blessing it is for a new generation who might otherwise never have discovered her.
Its these two acts bookending an uncompromising sense of self that elevate Chavela the woman from a milestone name in Latin American music to an icon on an international scale. And its the filmmakers’ access to her and the people most important to her (including, wonderfully, Pedro Almodóvar) that make Chavela the film an intimate, thoughtful portrait of a life well lived, a touching homage to a legend that can—and does—hold her own next to Piaf any day.