The stars aligned on Friday night, ahead of the July 8th Netflix release of Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch’s Mucho Mucho Amor, as drag queen Alexis Mateo channeled the spirit of the astrologer and Latinx icon Walter Mercado for Snatch Game of Love on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 5. And he did a beautiful job. If you can manage to make RuPaul laugh during Snatch Game you know you’re doing something right. Mateo captured the air of camp extravagance, drama, playfulness, positivity and glamour of his fellow Puerto Rican without ever mocking him.
It was a tribute to the enduring legend of the TV psychic who at his peak reached 120 million viewers daily with his hour-long horoscope show, signing off each day with his catchphrase of “mucho, mucho amor”, before he unexpectedly disappeared from public view in 2006. Costantini and Tabsch investigate how he created his image and built up his career in this lovingly crafted, uplifting biographical doc and why it came to a sudden holt, with a combination of archive footage and present day interviews with Mercardo in his own home, his longterm personal assistant Willie Acosta, his adoring nieces and famous admirers such as Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Although Mercado refused to label himself in terms of sexual orientation or gender expression – “I have sex with life. I have sex with everything, with clothes, with beauty”, he tells the filmmakers – his presence on television in heavy makeup and dazzling capes that could make Liberace look underdressed nevertheless inspired LGBTQ people watching him to feel better about themselves in a macho culture dominated by the Catholic Church. LGBTQ activist Karlo Karlo says growing up as a queer boy, Mercado gave him hope. As we see photographs of Mercardo in his youth he recalls not feeling like the other boys and that his mother encouraged him to be true to himself. With popularity came the inevitable impersonations, the intended comedy heavily tinged with homophobia. One contributor described only as “witch”, Mireya Lucio, muses on Mercado’s “augmented face that defies gender and maybe even age.” When asked if he’s been under the plastic surgeon’s knife Mercado admits to having “little arrangements, special botox, like Nicole Kidman”.
Mercado’s optimism and lust for life is infectious and sets the tone for the film, but one of the darker chapters chronicles Mercado mistakenly signing over the rights to his past and future work, name and even his own image to his manager Bill Bakula, and the ensuing six year legal battle during which time he was unable to work. Bakula gives his side of the story, saying that he has no regrets. Although Mercado describes himself in the film as “an ageless personality” who is somewhere “between fifty and death”, Mucho Mucho Amor doesn’t ignore his failing health and his own take on mortality and what may be ahead once he leaves this life.
In one of the most joyous and moving scenes in the film we go along with Mercado super fan, Hamilton writer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda and his father Luis to meet the astrologer. Seeing the two of them interact, Lin-Manuel emotionally recalling growing up watching Mercado as a child with abuela, and trying on the bejewelled Puerto Rican flag cape Mercado has just gifted him is a special moment. And Miranda’s posts about the meeting on Twitter showed that although he hadn’t been on TV for over a decade, there was a lot of love out there for Mercado, especially among meme sharing millennials. He’s even inspired the decor of a restaurant’s women’s bathroom we learn from the doc, and a cocktail.
At one point we hear Mercado say that a film should only be made about him once he’s dead. He was more interested in the present moment than looking back, but he did get to witness a massive outpouring of adoration for him last August when the HistoryMiami Museum launched an exhibition celebrating Mercado’s life on the fiftieth anniversary of his first television broadcast as an astrologer. It’s a delight to see the octogenarian arrive at the opening night event in suitably flamboyant and fabulous fashion, greeting his elated fans as they line up to tell him how much they love him and have their photograph taken with him, walking away that little bit brighter, lighter and more hopeful. That’s why millions of viewers were drawn to watch him on television for decades and the film is likely to have the same effect on its viewers.
By James Kleinmann
Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado releases globally on Netflix Wednesday July 8th 2020.