Documentary Review: “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado”

Damn this is fun.

“Mucho Mucho Amor” is a documentary that takes many of us back to that first time we caught a load of Walter Mercado, Puerto Rico’s astrologer to the masses, a Liberace/Elton/Cher flamboyant showman who brought old school TV theatricality to telling the world its star-sign forecast.

No matter who you are — Hispanic, Anglo, African American or Brazilian — if you channel surfed your way past a Mercado appearance, all capes and robes and jewels and hair, you stopped. And you remembered.

“What? The? Hell?” you’d ask, or maybe your jaw would just drop, because words failed you.

I distinctly remember stumbling across a newscast, “Primer Impacto,” and watching to test my Spanish comprehension. “Time for the forecast,” I think I understood. But wait, this isn’t WEATHER? They’re giving us a little “Walter Mercado y los Estrellas? (Walter Mercado and the Stars?)”

“It’s Paddy Chayevsky’s ‘NETWORK’ prediction come true!” I thought. A journalist couldn’t help but bemoan that a whole “newscast” was being undercut by cheesy “star sign” forecasting hokum.

But isn’t any sports fan tracking “betting picks” on an NFL preview show consuming the same sort of piffle?

And Mercado — florid, theatrical gestures and magnificent ’70s red hair flaming out of the screen — was just hilarious, if also relentlessly upbeat.

“Mucho, mucho MUCHO amor!” he’d say, piling on “muchos” to his sign-off and catch-phrase. There truly was nothing on TV like him. Not even in Japan.

This “Legend of Walter Mercado” film by Cristina Constanti and Kareem Tabsch begins with a tease, a “Whatever happened to” mystery that isn’t all that mysterious.

No, he isn’t dead. No, he didn’t go into hiding in Mexico, “closing the door” as one said of Garbo, “not wanting to grow old on camera” the comic Eugenio Derbez speculates. But we know what happened, and the gossip and conspiracy theorizing is just for the forgetful.

“The Legend of Walter Mercado” tells his life story, a rural Puerto Rican kid who didn’t “do what the other boys did,” who went to college in San Juan to study dance and acting.

He’d been thought of as something of a faith-healer in his hometown after miraculously breathing “a dead bird back to life.” “Discovered” on a San Juan stage, turned into a telenovela actor, and then, as a one-off promotional gimmick — becoming a TV astrologer — the arc of a life traced here is both unique and familiar.

No, no one went as far and fast and high as he did as an astrologer. But yes, there were familiar pitfalls along the way, the stereotypical predatory manager who got him rich and then tried to take it all.

Forgotten. And then, wouldn’t you know it? Those damned Millennials rediscover him!

And who’s the most famous Puerto Rican Millennial of the moment? Actor, dancer and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda is the starstruck fanboy whose meeting with Mercado, and subsequent collaboration, would lead to a big public celebration of this aged/ageless icon via a fashion show (his vast wardrobe, some capes designed by Mizrahi and Versace) and dance exhibition.

Gay activists talk about Mercado, defying Latin machismo and homophobia, as “a (caped) superhero” who “gave me hope.”

Derbez, the Mexican comic and film star, is unashamed about owing much of his fame to a swishy Mercado impersonation he did on his TV show.

And there, at the center of it all, put-together (he does have one moment, bald, sans wig) and overdressed in his deliriously over-decorated San Juan home, is Mercado himself.

His private life he always kept private, aiming all his efforts at his face — Botoxed to the max –his image (“glamorous…mesmerizing”) and his shtick.

“To serve, to give the beautiful message of love and peace” to his “disciples.”

Such is his sweetness and lack of guile that among the many friends, relatives, colleagues and fans interviewed here is Guillermo “Bill” Bakula, the manager who tricked Mercado into signing away his name, back catalog and image to him. He doesn’t own up to doing anything wrong, but he won’t say a discouraging word about his former employer, either.

The film runs out of things to say in its latter third as it gets caught up in Walter’s “appreciation” staged in Miami. That tends to bog down what can only be appreciated as a lovely, loving “victory lap” for an icon of Latin America and Puerto Rican culture.

3stars2

Cast: Walter Mercado, Bill Bakula, Lin Manuel-Miranda, Eugenio Derbez

Credits: Directed by Cristina Constanti and Kareem Tabsch.  A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:36

 

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