In her early days in journalism Irish writer Maeve Binchy was tasked with writing a horoscope column. She duly researched the outlook for various signs and wrote them, including some warnings for certain people about something troubling on the horizon. Her editor told her to stop, because people read the horoscopes for a bit of optimism and hope.
True, that. Every weekday morning, one of the most-read features in the online edition of this newspaper is Your Daily Horoscope. Nobody likes to talk a lot about astrology much, but an awful lot of people read the daily forecast for Pisces, Leo, Cancer and all the other signs.
It’s nonsense, right? Now me, I’m a Virgo and it turns out a bunch of people I know and like are Virgos, too. So, maybe it’s not all nonsense.
Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado (streams on Netflix) is about an astrology legend. It is a charming, uplifting documentary, as effective a tonic as a sunny horoscope forecast. Over the past few months it has become a huge hit on Netflix and it’s easy to see why.
The utterly captivating Walter Mercado became a legend in Spanish-speaking countries after his daily astrology segment on a TV station in Puerto Rico was a surprise hit. An actor and dancer, Mercado delivered his prediction in a dramatic voice and dressed in the most extravagantly elegant of clothes. He often wore a cape and was covered in jewels. His sense of drama and style was unerring. As the actor, singer and Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda explains in the doc, he was utterly beguiling.
What sealed Mercado’s popularity and impact, however, was his positive outlook. He ended every broadcast with this: “Reciban de mi siempre mucho paz, pero sobre todo mucho mucho mucho amor.” May you receive from me always, peace, lots of peace, but above all, lots and lots of love.
In the 1970s and into the 1980s Mercado had an extraordinary status. At one point, more than 150 radio stations in the United States carried his horoscope show. He met U.S. presidents and was mobbed at public appearances. In the doc, we see him being interviewed by Howard Stern, who declares, “You’re bigger than Jesus Christ.” Stern showed Mercado respect because, well, there was something mystic about the man.
Then one day he disappeared from the airwaves. Filmmakers Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch found him and interviewed him at length for this documentary. (He died last year at 87.) The reasons for his disappearance are banal: a legal dispute with a former manager about the rights to his name and image. That manager, who initially helped propel Mercado to stardom, is interviewed, too, and it’s a while before he emerges as a possible villain.
But there is nothing banal about Mercado, even in old age. Flamboyant, reflective and eternally sweet, he drenches his life story in a kind of magic realism. He says that when he was a boy, and very shy, he found an injured bird and sort of cooed it back to health. For this he became a popular figure in the neighbourhood. People wanted him to touch them and for him to foretell their future.
In all of this, there is a touch of cunning on Mercado’s part, because what he’s really talking about is love and tolerance. That’s what made him a superstar in great swaths of the world. Something benign issued from him and it had an impact on people. Lin-Manuel Miranda might well focus on “the power of his oratory”, but apart from the flamboyance, there was something otherworldly about this man.
The filmmakers probe gently at the topic of Mercado’s sexuality. He was, of course, sometimes mocked for his look and his effeminate appearance. He’s not coy; he’s savvy in a self-protective way. “I have sexuality with the wind, the flowers, the garden,” he says. Asked if he’s had any plastic surgery done, he shrugs and says, “Little arrangements.” As the film makes clear, to many young gay men, Mercado was a hero, his very existence thwarting Latin machismo and homophobia.
This adorable documentary has become a Netflix hit because we all live under considerable stress right now and the film has an undeniable charm, as its subject does, and it is deeply heartening. And I say that as an aloof, analytical, hard-to-like Virgo.
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