By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, October 6, at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
An affectionate but rudimentary documentary introduction to Chavela Vargas, a singer virtually unknown to western audiences, but a groundbreaking artist in Mexico and Spain.
Vargas stood out by wearing men’s clothes rather than the flowery dresses popular with female singers of the era. She used her husky and powerful voice to perform heart-breaking corridos onstage while seducing every woman she could find offstage.
Directors Gund and Kyi take a cue from Asif Kapadia’s Amy, using onscreen lyrics and old interviews with the now-deceased Vargas to direct the flow of the story. However, Chavela also mixes in new talking-head interviews with her fawning friends and acolytes. Among them, Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, who helped introduce Vargas to Spain, and frequently used her music in his films.
In their aggressive attempt to contextualize and lionize Vargas, the directors permit one person to make a patently false claim that Vargas was the first female performer to ever dress in men’s clothes. These new interviews only weigh the film down, moving Chavela away from cinematic lyricism and into the artistically null world of bullet-point documentaries.