Walter Mercado signed off every one of his wildly popular televised astrology readings with a vital and uplifting message, one which resonates just as much today: “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.
The late Puerto Rican actor and dancer was the first and most widely televised astrologer in the world, gracing TV screens and radio stations in every Spanish-speaking market for nearly four decades beginning in the 1970s. He disappeared from public view amidst an arduous legal battle over the rights to his name and previous work, retreating to a fortress-like villa in San Juan. His outsized personality, dazzling capes, and uplifting message of love earned him the arduous devotion of millions of fans the world over. Mercado passed away in 2019, but his spirit endures, and will now reach even more followers thanks to an entertaining and uplifting new documentary with an apt title: “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado.”
Directed by Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch, the film is as visually sumptuous, emotionally honest, and deliciously captivating as Mercado himself. Peppered with the adoring characters and nefarious figures he surrounded himself with, “Mucho Mucho Amor” is equal parts mystery, telenovela-flecked fable, and endearing hagiography. Merging plenty of background with lesser known juicier tidbits, the film should be just as enjoyable for longtime fans as it is to newbies only now discovering Mercado’s brilliance. If he wasn’t already a meme queen, he would no doubt soon become one.
The film opens with a sharply edited montage of archival clips of Mercado, in a different eye-popping outfit each time, proclaiming the name of each zodiac sign with increasing enthusiasm, imbuing each with a mystical reverence. The opening finishes with an intriguing flourish, as the primary interview subjects explain the mystery of Mercado’s disappearance, musing: “Where is Walter Mercado?” It’s an effective setup, though the tension is quickly released when an aging Mercado appears onscreen in what appears to be recent footage. Clearly, the filmmakers found him.
Courtesy of Netflix
Mercado begins his yarn with his childhood in Ponce, explaining how he came to be known as “Walter of the miracles” after breathing life into a dead bird with his mind. The story is rendered in gorgeous animation by Alexa Lim Haas (whose 2018 short “Agua Viva” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was awarded a Grand Jury Prize at SXSW). Haas animates various key tales in the film, adding a fitting note of otherworldly whimsy.
Costantini and Tabsch build their narrative around the Mercado myth with the technical elements at their disposal. They lean into their subjects’ passionate enthusiasm, setting their interviews with a driving yet playful score. Bright underlying instrumentals elevate the traditional talking head interviews, transforming each speaker into a kind of raconteur, weaving a legend passed down through generations.
Without question, the star of the show is Mercado himself, even as his age limits his movement. After a serious heart operation diminished his health, Mercado must be careful donning his more cumbersome capes. But he still delivers plenty of amusing one liners, relaying valuable nuggets of wisdom like: “I have sex with life,” “to be different is a gift,” and “all religions have a point of convergence.”
A just as endearing character emerges in the form of Willy Acosta, Mercado’s devoted longtime assistant whose many duties include hair, make-up, cape maintenance, and overseeing a dizzying array of nutritional supplements. Acosta is family, Mercado explains, along with his many eccentric nieces who also narrate the film.
The filmmakers milk a minor dramatic twist out of Mercado’s slimy former manager Bill Bakula, introducing him as a neutral figure before revealing the details of their bitter legal dispute. Having earned Mercado’s trust by launching his brand and empire internationally, Bakula gets him to sign away the rights to his name in perpetuity throughout the universe. The film chalks this up to Mercado’s lack of business savvy and kind-hearted nature, possibly letting him off the hook a little too easily.
Courtesy of Netflix
A scene of fellow Puerto Rican icon Lin Manuel Miranda gushing over meeting Mercado drags on a little long, though his child-like awe is heartening. Just as illustrative of Mercado’s staying power is a section illuminating Mercado’s recent cult status amongst Latinx millennials, prompting one of the scene’s most adorable moments — an older man gleefully stating “I know about the memes” (or, as he puts it to charming effect, “mimis”).
Although this is their first feature together, both filmmakers found success with previous collaborations. Tabsch (with Denis Scholl) on 2018’s excellent “The Last Resort,” a vibrant portrait of the late Miami photographer Andy Sweet, who photographed the Jewish seniors of Miami’s South Beach in the 1970s. Tabsch first made a splash with his short film “Dolphin Lover,” about a college student who had a love affair with a Bottlenose Dolphin named Dolly, also in the ’70s. That same year, Costantini released the charming “Science Fair,” about a group of ambitious young competitors at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, which she co-directed with Darren Foster.
The filmmakers walk a difficult line of questioning about Mercado’s sexuality, remaining direct but respectful. One of the more poignant and perhaps sadder revelations in the film is that Mercado never publicly discussed his sexual orientation. Mercado dances around the questions with gusto, joking that he is the last virgin in the world. It’s painful but not surprising to witness clips of the ridicule he suffered, via countless caricatures and invasive questions. One subject posits that he was able to remain in the spotlight precisely because he never came out. Another sums it up succinctly: “He was embraced and othered at the same time.”
With each new sequined suit or chiffon cape, “Mucho Mucho Amor” delivers gem after gem. The film is a wild ride and a loving portrait, providing a vital record of this outsized figure who was so ahead of his time it seemed as though he transcended the laws of the universe. As Mercado himself attests, “He used to be a star, but now Walter is a constellation.”
“Mucho Mucho Amor” is currently streaming on Netflix.
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