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‘Chavela’ Documentary Profiles Mexico’s Iconic Female Ranchera Singer

Dan Allen - NBC Out
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October 5, 2017
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Chavela Trailer (Movieclips Indie)

When American filmmaker Catherine Gund met Mexican ranchera singer Chavela Vargas in 1991, both women were at major crossroads in their lives.

Gund, then a young queer activist, had just lost her best friend to AIDS. Vargas, a feisty 71-year-old who’d once been Mexico’s best-known female singer of mournful ranchera ballads, had just returned to the small stage following years of extreme alcoholism that had made her a virtual recluse.

Neither could have known that more than a quarter century later, the casual footage Gund shot of their early ‘90s interviews would form the backbone of an absorbing documentary about Vargas’ life. “Chavela” opens theatrically this week and covers both Vargas’ early career in the years leading up to their chat and the unlikely comeback and international stardom that she would go on to enjoy very late in her remarkable life.

Born in Costa Rica in 1919, Vargas endured a turbulent childhood before fleeing to Mexico at the tender age of 14 to seek her fortune as an entertainer. She found her niche — and what would become her life’s calling — in the macho world of canción ranchera, a traditional style of Mexican singing performed almost exclusively by men.

Her intensely passionate interpretations of traditional love songs — and her steadfast refusal to swap pronouns to make them more heterosexually palatable — earned Vargas popularity within bohemian and high society circles in the 1950s. She then parlayed that into wider Mexican fame in the 1960s and early 1970s, all the while stoking a shameless reputation for hard drinking and skirt chasing.

Over the two phases of her long career, Vargas befriended both Frida Kahlo and Pedro Almodóvar, two of the 20th century’s biggest global LGBTQ icons. For Almodóvar, Vargas became a favored muse, and he featured her in several of his films. Fittingly, she also appeared in the 2002 biopic of her former love, “Frida.” She personally shunned labels for decades, but in 2000 at the age of 81, Vargas finally came out as a lesbian.

After Vargas died in 2012 at the age of 93, Gund dusted off the footage from their early 1990s meetings. Teaming with co-director/producer Daresha Kyi, Gund conducted modern interviews with key figures from Vargas’ life, then threaded the pieces of the story together using the singer’s own emotionally powerful songs.

NBC Out spoke with Catherine Gund about the legendary singer and their fateful rendezvous more than 25 years ago.

Read the interview at NBC Out

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