Cristina Costantini & Kareem Tabsch’s new documentary looks at multihyphenate Walter Mercado’s impact to generally strong results.
Astrology is making a comeback. Like many long-running interests, it never really leaves, but instead shifts in and out of the greater focus. There was the “age of Aquarius” in the ‘60s, Ms. Cleo and other ubiquitous psychic hotlines of the ‘90s, and now there’s the rekindled millennial obsession with the Zodiac in the late 2010s. With this renewed interest in what the heavens can foretell, it seems that the stars have aligned to herald a new documentary about the most famous astrologer: the late Walter Mercado.
Cristina Costantini & Kareem Tabsch’s Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado is a dazzling pastiche of life and career of the actor-dancer-astrologer. Interweaving archive footage witth interviews with Mercado, his family, personal assistant, business partners, and those he inspired—most notably and frequently Lin-Manuel Miranda—Costantini & Tabsch detail his public persona and impact.
Amor also follows a relatively chronological path, from his humble beginnings in rural Puerto Rico to his rise to fame on Hispanic television. Then comes his financial downfall, and finally a revival of public interest in his work, culminating with the opening of a Walter Mercado exhibit at the HistoryMiami Museum. It makes for something that’ll most likely serve as the introduction of Mercado to a non-Latinx viewer. While Mercado had a presence in English speaking media in the ‘90s with appearances on The Howard Stern Show and Sally Jessy Raphael, his audience was primarily in the Spanish-speaking world.
Tabsch & Costantini tell Mercado’s story in sections named after the Tarot’s Major Arcana, themed to a different part of Walter’s life with the cards animated in a Loteria style. Cards such as “The Magician” recount Mercado’s childhood, while “The Hermit” focuses on his retreat into a more private life after a protracted legal battle with former manager Bill Bakula. This Tarot/Loteria fusion style is also used in animated sequences when archival footage isn’t available, namely for Mercado’s account of him healing a bird as well as his heart attack. It’s honestly a shame there aren’t more animated sequences; they’re charming and gorgeously drawn.
But while the documentary is segmented, the directors form narrative threads that reoccur throughout. For example, Mercado recounts his early love of dance, at which point the deliberateness of Mercado’s gestures becomes clear. As you watch him move in archival clips and in current interviews, you see the way in his formal dance training influenced his every day movement. Mercado’s kindness and altruistic spirit is echoed throughout interviews, and Constantini & Tabsch use this to foreshadow both Mercado’s rise and his eventual downfall as his manager takes advantage of him.
But despite the feeling of intimacy from interviews, there’s a feeling the audience never sees the true Mercado. Walter makes it clear his performance is deliberate. When discussing how as a child he realized he wasn’t able to, nor did he want to, live a normal life, he decided: “I’m going to fabricate, create a famous person in me.” This fabrication of a public persona is still strong in Mercado, and despite the interviews and filmmakers’ intimate access to his day-to-day life, the film doesn’t offer much glimpse into Mercado’s inner life.
Though Tabsch & Constatnini aren’t able to give us a glimpse of who Mercado was behind the cape, they adroitly capture his presence and what made him a force of nature in the Latinx world.
This seems, more than anything, to be partly due to Mercado’s non-cisheteronormative identity. Mercado is described as an “androgyne.” While he was beloved by many in the Lantinx world, he was also the target of jokes about his gender and sexuality. Karlo Karlo, a Latinx LGBTQ+ activist, discusses how Mercado’s rejection of the Latinx ideal of machismo in the ‘80s and ‘90s helped him come to terms with his own queer identity.
At one point in the film, Mercado comments that when he was starting out, he felt he was actually from 100 years in the future. That feels apt; despite coming to stardom in the 20th century, there’s something very “now” about him. His style, his astrology, his meme-ability—which the end of the film covers—all add to his appeal in 2020. The subtitle to the film is “The Legend of Walter Mercado,” and that’s exactly what the movie gives us. Walter’s life isn’t the focus of this documentary. His legacy and cultural impact is.
Though Tabsch & Constatnini aren’t able to give us a glimpse of who Mercado was behind the cape, they adroitly capture his presence and what made him a force of nature in the Latinx world. In addition to being a good documentary, part of Mercado’s appeal was he never said anything negative in his readings. He gave hope that there will be a better tomorrow. This, in part, makes Mucho Mucho Amor a good watch as COVID-19 continues to ravage the US. Right now, we could all use a fabulously coiffed and caped man telling us that tomorrow is a better day.
Mucho Mucho Amor is now on Netflix.