The life of Chavela Vargas was full of pain, as well as painfully beautiful music.

Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi’s documentary Chavela is both a celebration of the rough but ultimately triumphant life of Mexican ranchera singer Chavela Vargas and a study of the more poisonous effects of Mexico’s notoriously macho culture in the 20th century. The hard-partying Chavela achieved regional fame in the 1950s and ’60s, but what prevented her career from truly taking off was her refusal to dress or act like a traditional woman. It’s that sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation that’s not limited to Mexico but remains especially strong there — where you can be whatever you want to be on stage, but you’d best keep it to yourself offstage so you don’t make the snowflakes uncomfortable.

It wasn’t until the early 1990s, after a long fallow period of alcoholism and poverty — with the help of director Pedro Almodóvar! — that her career got back on track, and she was finally able to acknowledge at the age of 81 that she was a lesbian. (Better late.) One of Chavela’s smartest formal choices is displaying her song lyrics on-screen. While it’s necessary for a non-Spanish speaking audience, it also helps relates the words of her ineffably sad songs to her personal struggles — and it’s something documentaries about English-language music would do well to consider.

Not rated.
Opens Friday at the Opera Plaza Cinema.

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