Born in the 1930s in a rural, sugarcane-growing region of Puerto Rico, Walter Mercado says he knew he was different from a young age. He wasn’t interested in working in the cane fields or in outdoor activities. And fortunately for him, his mother encouraged his creative endeavors, like playing the piano. After training in dance and theater, he began acting in telenovelas. But in 1969, already a devoted amateur in reading the stars, he was pressed into service by a Puerto Rican television station to present a brief segment on astrology, and the rest of his story suddenly unfolded before him. Though many non-Spanish-speaking Americans may still not know his name, over the next 30 years Walter Mercado became a legendary fixture on the televisions of viewers throughout the Americas and around the world, delivering daily horoscopes and engendering hope through his relentlessly positive messages. Further, as we learn in Cristina Constantini and Kareem Tabsch’s new documentary, Walter became perhaps not so much a fashion icon as the innovator of an iconic and ever-bewildering look, that of golden-haired sorcerer dressed in bold, jewel-toned capes and pantsuits, every finger beringed, his face a supple mask with prominent lips and cheek bones, his eyebrows arching provocatively before he delivered his patented sendoff: “Mucho, mucho, mucho amor!”
It seems clear that Walter’s style and mannerisms are deeply linked to what, during his interviews with the filmmakers, he refers to as his youthful difference, which we might interpret as indicative of young Walter’s understanding of himself as gay, or at least not typically masculine. Images of him as a young man with the longer hair typical of his later years suggest an intriguing androgyny (as well as images of a blond Jesus), which persisted throughout the rest of his life. Impersonations of Walter (which he hated), tended to emphasize gay stereotypes, but he seems to have deflected speculation and harassment both by his success and by his privacy, politely declining to discuss his sexuality or his personal relationships, outside family, the longest of which was with his assistant of over 50 years, Willie Acosta. And it’s this as much as Walter’s wild, worldwide fame, that we’re told has made him beloved, even now, by so many Latinx viewers who once watched him with their grandmothers. His grand display of genderbending flamboyance was, in fact, essential to the global embrace of his unique persona, and provided hope of acceptance for all his viewers.
Mucho Mucho Amor is essentially a very entertaining celebrity documentary, tracking Walter’s career to its greatest heights in the 1980s, through professional struggles in the ’90s, and a subsequent peaceful and comfortable retirement and nostalgic resurgence in more recent years. He is pure pleasure to watch and to listen to, and the film treats us to extensive interviews, and copious costume changes, at Walter’s baroquely cluttered home in San Juan and elsewhere. We quickly understand Walter’s attraction. He’s a great storyteller and he’s also an indomitably positive force. In other hands, his pastiche of faiths and astrology might strike us as hokey or cynically opportunistic, and if we got more deeply into them, they might still seem so. But, generally, we’re inclined to embrace his message of peace and positivity. They seem to continue to work quite well for him as we never see him in a bad mood, and he remains mostly active and astonished.
All that said, one of the film’s more intriguing claims about Walter’s appeal is his connection with fans of a certain age—those grandmothers—as well as with Puerto Rican immigrants more broadly, for whom Walter is suggested to have represented a strong link to the culture of the island. It’s certainly understandable why the filmmakers would focus so much on Walter himself, particularly given the substantial access they had to him, his family, and his home. But it would have been nice, too, to hear even more from those fans who never met Walter on whose behalf these claims of connection to home are made. That story, told by individuals, of how a local celebrity’s rise to spectacular media fame (also a kind of immigration, perhaps) instilled pride, identity, and comforting nostalgia in a frequently marginalized population, is equally as interesting as the story of the star’s ascent into the highest constellations. Nevertheless, what we get in Mucho Mucho Amor is delightfully transporting and highly recommended.
For more Sundance, click here.