It was more a statement of political solidarity than an earth-shattering revelation when, at age 81, ranchera singer Chavela Vargas officially came out as a lesbian. For decades she’d been a legendary seducer of women, among them the artist Frida Kahlo and actress Ava Gardner. She’d defied the rules of the gender game her whole life, as a documentary portrait by Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi makes vibrantly clear.
Vargas’ parents hid their defiantly nonfeminine daughter from guests, but she would claim the spotlight in the clubs of Mexico City. Jettisoning the customary frilly dresses, she sang wrenching songs of love “like a man” — in pants and poncho, wrapping her sultry voice around lyrics addressed to women.
At the center of the evocative mix of archival material and talking heads is an intimate interview that Gund recorded in 1991, when Vargas was mounting a spectacular comeback after a lost decade of alcohol and despair. Shamans had helped her heal, and her ardent champion Pedro Almodóvar would help her reach new, rapturous audiences in Spain.
Throughout “Chavela,” onscreen translations of lyrics accompany concert clips. A literal understanding of the songs is hardly necessary, though. The emotion in the performance says everything we need to know.
Just as Vargas, who died in 2012, stripped away costume froufrou, she peeled singing down to its essence. Celebrating a great ranchera interpreter without sugarcoating her, this straightforward film honors her approach.
In Spanish with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Playing: Landmark Nuart, West Los Angeles