Chavela Vargas (Alicia Elena Pérez Duarte/Music Box Films)

“Mexico taught me to be who I am, not with hugs and kisses, but with punches and slaps,” reminisces Mexican singing star and lesbian icon Chavela Vargas in the documentary biography Chavela. Directors Catherine Gund and Dareshe Kyi marshal fairly conventional, though evocative, techniques to paint a vivid portrait of a vain, pain-wracked, but magnetic figure.

Born into a poor family in Costa Rica in 1919, Vargas attracted attention for her early predilection for male clothing and behavior. She soon escaped provincial life and headed for Mexico City, depicted here with vintage clips as a swinging, pre-Americanized cultural and nightlife magnet. Vargas made her mark in this milieu singing traditional ranchera ballads.

Photos reveal a doe-eyed, awkwardly beautiful young woman, but more than her good looks set Vargas apart. The singer ditched the genre’s customary hoop skirts and hip wiggling. She scandalously donned men’s clothing and reduced melodramatic ranchera conventions to something brooding and stripped-down.  Says Mexican singer Olivia Leon: “She got rid of all the embellishments and turned it into music of the soul.”

Success came heady and exciting. An accomplished seducer, Vargas enjoyed a liaison with Frida Kahlo (looking surprisingly sweet and demure in old clips and photos) and claimed to have spent an Acapulco night with Ava Gardner, although one senses this conquest may be a macho boast—a defense mechanism Vargas grew to rely on in a hostile environment. She cultivated a hell-raising reputation, but tension and internal conflict beset her behind the scenes.  A heavy tequila habit and declining popularity put her career—and pride—on ice for 12 painful years. It would take a lot of will power to crawl out of the deep freeze.

Much of the documentary is culled from Gund’s 1991 interview with the singer, where she proudly recalled high and low points from her career. By then she was 71 and had attained the status of a national treasure. Like many such sacred monsters, Vargas controlled her story with a façade of bravado. The film turns to talking heads to fill in the picture in a way the chanteuse can’t, and this often underwhelming technique turns out to be an asset. Friends, promoters, and fellow singers are smart, frank, and able to talk objectively about Vargas’s struggles with Mexico’s power structures and her weaknesses. Lawyer Alicia Elena Pérez Duarte provides a lively account of her turbulent affair with Vargas, puncturing a few of Vargas’s tall tales about herself in the most affectionate way.

Vargas would enjoy first a tentative comeback, then a thundering one, bowling over Pedro Almodóvar with the directness and emotionalism of her singing. Calling her “an old friend” and “a priestess,” the director used her song “Volver” in his film of the same title and arranged for her to tour Europe. The singer extended her career to the bitter end, in the hope of dying onstage, and came out at the age of 80. At her passing, in 2012, she was a full-fledged star, a beloved lesbian inspiration, and a survivor in touch with a mystical life force, fitting for someone who, in the words of Leon, “always sang as if she’d been born with the wounds of life and death.”

Produced and Directed by Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi
Released by Music Box Films
Spanish with English subtitles
Mexico/Spain/USA. 93 min. Not rated
With Pedro Almodóvar, Elena Benarroch, Miguel Bosé, Liliana Felipe, and Laura García-Lorca