Theatrics. Glamour. Jewels. Capes. Astrology. And mucho, mucho amor. That is camp. That is queer. And that is Walter Mercado. Watching this documentary, it almost felt like a spoof; like this person, this character, couldn’t have existed and thrived as he did in the 1970s-2000s Americas. How had I never heard of him before?
Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado (Cristina Costantini & Kareem Tabsch, 2020) narrates a part-chronological part-thematic biography of the Puerto Rican TV astrologer. At first the documentary teases its way towards a mysterious disappearance ー where did he go, what happened to him, is he even still alive? However, we soon hear from Walter himself, as well as a wide variety of close friends, colleagues, family members and admirers (my favourite of which, Mireya Lucio, is subtitled simply as “witch”). They all narrate the story of his career and legacy.
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As the title might suggest to any amateur linguists amongst you, the overriding theme across Walter Mercado’s life is love. Love for the stars, love for his public, and just love for the sake of love. Unfortunately, as we discover, too much love in the wrong place, along with a certain naivety, can lead to exploitation. A dodgy contract and a smarmy manager (who I’m very impressed they convinced to take part, though he showed no remorse) almost saw the end of Walter Mercado. There is also a short forray into some (sadly, expected) homophobic impressions of Walter, largely from within the Latin community itself. This makes his impersonation, or rather tribute, by drag legend Alexis Mateo on the recent season of Rupaul’s Drag Race All Stars all that more satisfying ー in a reclamatory way, of course.
We soon discover that his unbridled joy and hope continues to shine as he narrates his way through his trials and tribulations for us at the grand age of 87, or as he says, “somewhere between 50 and death”.
While the documentary is very much a tribute to Walter, the lack of omnipotent voiceover, often a staple of the genre, does at least give the appearance of a lack of bias. Narration from the every-expanding list of interviewees is creatively punctuated by cartoon tarot cards, splitting the narrative into thematic chapters. They also show the same style cartoon visualisations of a couple of stories from Walter’s life, mixing metaphor with spoken reality. Although I would have liked to perhaps see more of this, it was a welcome and visually engaging addition that I think Walter would approve of.
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[NB: this was very much a contested category this week. Honourable mentions go to: being asked about your sexuality and replying “I have sex with life”; and getting carried into a party you’re hosting on a gold chair à la elusive chanteuse Mariah Carey (every gay wants this whether they admit it or not)]
Of course, if we’re talking about visually engaging, we can’t not mention the numerous bejazzled and bedazzling capes that I’m sure even Edna Mode would be impressed by. These are seen in his current wardrobe and through his extensive list of historic TV appearances. Although there are, inevitably, a few misses (in one royal blue number and with outgrown hair he looks startling like Margaret Thatcher), he does make me want to wear capes. Why do I never wear capes? In his own words: “I am the picture and the cape is the frame.” Add that to a lavish number of jewels and beads, and he’s basically a gay pope. We can’t help but stan.
Whenever he is on screen, he has an undeniable power and presence which emanates through the screen. For a queer icon, he rarely talks about his sexuality (which he refuses to define). For an astrologer, he doesn’t talk that much (in the interview chair at least) about actual astrology. For a biographical film, you don’t learn much about his family background or his personal life beyond the facade. It is a testament to both the documentary’s storytelling and Walter’s charisma that you really don’t mind any of these things.
Top Tip: If you’re someone who thinks astrology is for gullible idiots, try not to carry that in your mind (also, just keep it to yourself in general, who are they harming?). Watch without judgment and you’ll have a better time with it.
As explained by one interviewed fan, you don’t have to believe in astrology to believe in Walter Mercado. And you don’t have to know anything about him to leave this documentary a fascinated, intrigued and enlightened fan. If he came to prominence today, he may have identified as non-binary and asexual, but in his unidentified queer power he goes (and yes it’s a cliché but here it is valid) beyond labels. He is an enigma. He is an oasis. He is an icon. And this documentary is a fitting tribute.
Header image via Netflix