Chavela Vargas had the kind of voice ready-made for songs about heartbreak. The Costa Rican-born Mexican singer could suggest an aching melancholy with the emotionality she brought to ranchera songs. Many who may only know of her songs from hearing them on their parents’ record collection or for their inclusion in Pedro Almodóvar films are getting a chance to know more about this musical icon courtesy of a new documentary on her life. Aptly titled Chavela, the music doc sheds light not just on the personal demons (including her alcoholism) that haunted her life or on the radical politics she came to represent (she was, after all, too keen on wearing pants and defying gender roles) but on the singer’s artistic legacy.
And who better to speak to why Chavela Vargas remains one of the most enduring musical voices of the twentieth century than Almodóvar himself. The Spanish director has been an outspoken fan of the rancheras Vargas popularized. Having used her music in films like Kika, La flor de mi secreto, Carne trémula and his latest project, Julieta where “Si no te vas” plays over the credits, he’s what you’d call a resident expert on the late great singer. It’s no surprise he’s featured prominently in Daresha Kyi and Catherine Gund’s documentary where he talks of Chavela as a “priestess.” Her performances, he argues, asked you to see the value in the many missteps we make when in love.
“She absolved you of all of your sins,” he says in the film, “Then she encouraged you to commit them again.” You can see a sneak peek of Pedro preaching the gospel of Chavela — and see the beloved icon sing a few bars of “Sombras” — in this exclusive clip below.
Chavela opens in select theaters on October 4, 2017