Who is Mercedes Sosa? For starters, she is the subject of Rodrigo H. Vila’s biographical documentary, Mercedes Sosa: The Voice of Latin America. Her remarkable voice gave rise to the Nueva Canción (New Song) movement of the ’60s, seemingly emanating enough power to move mountains. An exaggeration, perhaps, but as she said in one of her many canciones, “When I think of my country, I bleed a volcano.”

Suffering and survival were the bywords for this brave Argentine-born woman (July 9, 1935 – October 4, 2009), who not only performed sold-out concerts around the world — from New York’s Carnegie Hall to Rome’s Coliseum — but stood up against the brutal dictatorship of Jorge Videla, and was subsequently banned in 1979 from her own country until his downfall in the early ’80s. A film tribute to this extraordinary woman is long overdue, and if this frequently shapeless, if heartfelt account of her story manages to introduce her phenomenal talent to a new audience, then it is well worth the hard work and sincere efforts of the filmmaker and Sosa’s own son, Fabian Matus, as narrator.

Known as La Negra (literally The Black One), she was born in San Miguel de Tucumán of mestizo, French and Diaguita Amerindian ancestry. Her face was as unforgettable as the voice, matching its chords in power and presence. As distinctive as the profile on the U.S. nickel, she exhibited a timeless beauty; a beauty that doesn’t go unnoticed by the director. (In one particular still, we see her prodigious profile set against the Eiffel Tower.) She carried a message of hope and defiance to those who had no voice. As David Byrne, the most articulate musical spokesman to weigh in on her behalf throughout this crazy quilt of a tale, expressed, “even a very poetic song became a political act.”

We can be grateful that a fair amount of archival footage and photo stills exists for director Vila’s inclusion. Whenever the choice is made to include interludes of her singing among her own campesitas — the peasants and countrymen closest to her heart — as well as the dazzled fans abroad who may not have understood many of the lyrics in her Spanish repertoire, little more is needed. She is, after all, what all the fuss is about.

What we get instead too often is a patchwork of reminiscences from relatives, close friends and fellow musicians, a kind of connect the dots dialogue that reminds us how she was the Joan Baez for one, the Edith Piaf for another, even Mick Jagger and the Beatles for someone else. Closer to the mark is when we get a sense of the woman behind the voice from these stories — how she played with her siblings in the impoverished park near home, taken there by a mother who knew they were hungry and wanted them away from the cooking smells in other more fortunate households. Another welcome clip is when Sosa tells us in a recording how afraid she was to look at her audience and how important it was to learn how to do just that, especially with an audience who couldn’t speak her own tongue. But the audiences were always there. As a longtime friend explains, she was not a folk singer, simply of the earth — she was “linked to the world.”

The film’s early footage gives us a lingering view of smoke-filled skies and roaring ovens from the factory where her father labored. But we get little in the way of an overview to carry us through the formative years. In 1950, at the tender age of 15, she entered and won a local singing contest, which led to a radio contract while her severe father was away in Buenos Aires. This account at least gives us a clue to the willful spirit that was to carry her to new heights within a few years. By 1959, she recorded her first album, La Voz de la Zafra, and a second in 1965, centered on the Nuevo Cancionero movement, featuring Argentine folk songs. This collective movement had at its heart the struggle for social justice and peace. A European tour shortly followed.

At times the Argentine and Brazilian landscape serves as a backdrop to the songs when we are not afforded video from the actual concerts. Original music by Diego Vila helps to augment the recorded fragments. Unfortunately, for the English-speaking viewers, the translation of the lyrics does not always give us the true depth and beauty of those songs. But this is often the case with such a challenge on film or video. Thankfully, her own native tongue didn’t seem to deter the passion of French and German fans and others who were carried aloft by her voice alone in live performance.

Secondhand accounts suggest that her first marriage to Matus’ father was not a happy one. As we have all witnessed in other celebrity bios, great success often does not guarantee personal happiness. It is therefore hardly surprising that after a few years of marital bliss with her second husband Pocho, his sudden death and the untimely death of her beloved guitar accompanist Pepete Bértiz threw her into the throes of a deep depression. Tears of loss were as much a part of her existence as joy. What is lacking in this documentary is the focus and narrative drive to make the trajectory of that life come vividly to life for us.

A fighter of leftist causes all her life, she endured through death threats, exile and the onslaught of depression. In the words of musician Charly García, she lived on a special frequency; “she made us strong and defiant.”

It was the defiance of a woman who refused to let fear have a hold over her. An avid supporter of Peron as a young woman, she was a fearless supporter of Néstor Kirchner, who became president of Argentina in 2003. It naturally followed that she became a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Latin America and the Caribbean. She was born to take the role.

In a career spanning four decades, she worked within several musical genres, with legendary performers, worldwide — such as Andrea Bocelli, Nana Mouskouri, Milton Nascimento, Caetano Veloso, Joan Baez, Luciano Pavarotti, Lila Downs, Sting and many, many others. She was also an outstanding interpreter of works by her compatriot Atahualpa Yupanqui and Chile’s Violeta Parra. Her awards included the Diamond Konex Award in 1995, as the most important personality in Popular Music in Argentina. The Latin Grammy Award for Best Folk Album was bestowed on her in 2000, 2003 and 2006. A month after her death in 2009, her album Cantora I won Best Folk Album and was nominated for Album of the Year.

Perhaps to call her a “saint” is a difficult accolade for this champion of the people. But consider this: President Fernández de Kirchner ordered three days of national mourning when her body was placed on display at the National Congress building in Buenos Aires. In her eulogy, Helen Popper of Reuters reported that she “fought South America’s dictators with her voice and became a giant of contemporary Latin American music.” Somehow it’s not such a leap to believe that if Sosa had not been blessed with such a remarkable voice, she would have surely found another way to conquer our hearts and minds.

Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars

For more information about the film, inclusive of recent screenings, please visit: http://firstrunfeatures.com/mercedessosa.

Video Courtesy of: First Run Features.

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Featured image: Mercedes Sosa and Fabián Matus in 1970, as seen in “Mercedes Sosa: The Voice of Latin America,” a film by Rodrigo Vila. A First Run Features release. Photo Courtesy of: First Run Features.