Singer Chavela Vargas (1919-2012) was born in Costa Rica, but at 14 she left for Mexico, where she went on to perform in elegant clubs. "When I dressed like a woman I just looked like a transvestite," so she decided to comb her hair back and to wear pants and a poncho—creating a look that was considered outrageous in 1930s Mexico. Charismatic, deep-voiced and with a taste for tequila, Vargas sang rancheras, impassioned songs about despair, pain and heartbreak. Chavela includes archive material and interviews with the likes of Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, but it begins with a spellbinding rendition of "Soledad" ("Loneliness") from 1991. One interviewee points out that given the patriarchal nature of Mexican society, Vargas had little choice but to be butch. Although she did not come out as a lesbian until the age of 81, her sexual orientation was a public secret. In the 1940s she had an affair with the artist Frida Kahlo, and in the 1950s she slept with Hollywood star Ava Gardner. Co-director Catherine Gund’s 1991 interview with the singer forms the backbone of the film.