Before the opening night screening of Mucho Mucho Amor at this year’s True/False festival, co-director Kareem Tabsch discussed the impact that the film’s subject, the late famed Puerto Rican astrologer Walter Mercado, had on his life growing up, and in helping him come out as gay to his parents. “If they loved Walter, they could love me,” Tabsch said, introducing the film alongside co-director Cristina Constantini and producer Alex Fumero.
The way Mercado’s flamboyance and message of self-acceptance empowered so many of his fans plays a large role in Mucho Mucho Amor, just as much as its chronicle of Mercado’s late-in-life resurgence in popularity. It’s a documentary about a larger-than-life figure, but also a story about legacy, and the ways our lives can impact not only those around us, but people we may never meet.
For three decades, Mercado was a staple in Latin and Latin-American homes. On his show, Walter y Las Estrellas, he read out horoscopes and discussed spirituality while sporting opulent capes (including ones designed by Versace, Swarovski and Isaac Mizrahi), pounds of makeup and impressively-coiffed hair. Then, suddenly, Mercado vanished from the public eye, rarely seen by fans. Stories of what he’d been up to for the last twenty years include being picked up by the mothership to living in a fortress in Puerto Rico.
Constantini, Tabsch and their crew spent two years with Mercado before his death in 2019, and the audience’s foreknowledge that the film’s subject is in the last years of his life colors the movie in a profound way. Mercado reflects on his life and long career in Spanish-language TV. His family and close associates comment on his impact, too, as do luminaries including Lin-Manuel Miranda and Eugenio Derbez.
The film also discusses how Mercado’s unique personality and defiance of gender norms empowered generations of viewers–particularly in the hispanic LGBTQ community–who also felt different from the people around them. Mercado preached self-confidence and self-love on every episode of his show, with horoscopes that encouraged those who heard them to go out and make the most of life. He refused to tone down his outfits, his bling or his dramatic flair for anyone. Tabsch’s feeling that if his parents accepted Walter, he might also be accepted, is reflected in a number of interviews with fans and activists who say Mercado helped them feel less alone.
Initially, the aim of the filmmakers is to find out why Mercado suddenly disappeared from public life after 30 years of being a beloved presence in so many lives. They get answers, and they are predictably tragic. However, the story doesn’t stop there. Mucho Mucho Amor takes a turn three quarters of the way through, as Mercado’s star gets a polish through his popularity among millennials, as well as a 50-year retrospective on his career at a museum in Miami.
As Mercado prepares to go to the exhibit’s opening gala, his health suffers, and it’s clear he’s near the end of his life. The gala ends up being his final appearance in public. Unintentionally, it becomes the kind of send-off most of us would dream of getting, but usually never experience. Carried into the event on a throne, wearing a gold sequined suit, Mercado is surrounded by people he loves, admirers he’s never met and artifacts from his life–old costumes, family photos, his signature rings with jewels the size of quail eggs. It may feel a little idolatrous, but it’s also a moving tribute to a figure who meant so much to generations of viewers. Months before his death, Mercado gets to witness how well he’s been loved throughout his life, and how much love surrounds him still.
Perhaps Mucho Mucho Amor’s most powerful theme is the importance of validation. Most of us aren’t like Walter Mercado–we aren’t over-the-top icons who made a fortune reading out horoscopes and live in a mansion with our long-time assistant and a room full of Versace capes. Everyone, however, deserves to know that they have value to other people. We aren’t likely to get a museum gala thrown in our honor, but if we can die knowing we’ve made someone else’s life better, even just a little bit, that’s enough.
Mucho Mucho Amor celebrates Mercado’s wild personality, but it also celebrates how that personality shaped and strengthened the lives of so many people. When asked if he believes in astrology, one of Mercado’s associates replies, “I believe in Walter.” Tabsch and Constantini’s documentary is a reminder to thank the people in our lives who believe in us.
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10
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