Miami International Airport, the summer of 2019. The famously flamboyant astrologer Walter Mercado has just arrived from Puerto Rico, and we are with him as a golf cart whisks the ailing 87-year-old through the concourse.
Mercado had mysteriously vanished from the public eye nearly a decade ago — and it’s been 20, maybe even 30 years since he was at the peak of his TV and radio fame. It would hardly be a surprise if he sailed through the airport without being recognized.
No chance. One by one, mostly much younger fans reach out to shake Walter’s hand, to pose for a selfie with him, to tell him they watched him all the time growing up. It’s as if an icon from their childhood has suddenly appeared in front of them, and they are beaming with joy.
This scene takes place in the fascinating and uplifting Netflix documentary “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado.” By then, we have learned the improbable and amazing story of Mercado’s rise to fame, we have been dazzled by his groundbreaking theatricality, we have seen his lasting impact on Hispanic culture and the LGBTQ community — and we have come to admire him and feel grateful the world was graced by the unique and singular Walter Mercado.
Filmmakers Cristina Constantini and Kareem Tabsch have fashioned an illuminating and insightful documentary/biography, told for the most part in chronological order, with chapters of Mercado’s life cleverly introduced via vibrant Tarot card animation with titles such as “The Magician,” “The Star,” “The Cloaked Man” and “The Tower.” There’s a relatively brief but comprehensive look at Mercado’s early years, starting with Mercado’s childhood in rural Puerto Rico in the 1930s. According to Mercado’s telling of the tale, as a little boy he discovered a wounded bird and literally breathed life into it — and when a neighbor woman who witnessed this miracle spread the story, the townsfolk began lining up to have an audience with young Walter, in the hopes he could heal an ailment or answer a prayer.
Fast forward to Mercado as a handsome young actor who was already embracing his flair for dramatic hairstyles, makeup and colorful attire as he acted in telenovelas and gave astrological readings on the side. One day, while still in costume from a soap opera, Walter was set to do live promos but instead did an ad-libbed, 15-minute horoscope — and it was such an immediate hit, he was soon given his own daily show. By the 1970s and 1980s, Mercado was sporting lavish capes and jewelry that would be the envy of Elton John, and had become an international sensation on TV and radio, with his fame in the United States growing after appearances on Howard Stern’s radio show and Sally Jessy Raphael’s TV talk show. (The title of the doc comes from Mercado’s famous signoff: “Mucho Mucho Amor!”)
The doc includes invaluable interviews with Mercado’s longtime assistant and constant companion, Willie Acosta; a number of family members, including adult nieces who clearly adore their beloved uncle and are constantly hovering nearby, and Mercado’s former manager, Bill Bakula, who is given credit for catapulting Mercado’s career into the stratosphere but becomes the villain in this story when he engineers complete control over Mercado’s past and present work and even the rights to the name “Walter Mercado.”
But of course, the real star is Mercado himself, who welcomed the filmmakers into his home for extensive conversation and observation. In his mid-80s and moving about gingerly due to a variety of ailments, Mercado is nonetheless still as whimsical and playful and upbeat as ever. Pressed about his sexuality and the longtime rumors he and his assistant Willie were more than just friends, he launches into a monologue about how his definition of sex is quite different from most. Is he a virgin? “The only one in town,” he says with a coy smile.
“Mucho Mucho Amor” doesn’t shy away from Mercado’s legal battles, and the criticism he received for joining the notorious “Psychic Friends Network,” which shamelessly preyed on naïve and often financially struggling audiences with a 900-number scam. Mercado defends himself by saying he never promised lottery wins or a fairy-tale marriage to anyone, ever, and that he was all about embracing tenets of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and, well, astrology, to send out positive vibes and urge his fans to wake up every morning determined to have a good day. Clearly he was a positive influence on millions, as evidenced in a touching scene when Lin-Manuel Miranda has the opportunity to meet him and is starstruck to the point of tears.
The arrival scene in Miami is a precursor to the Miami History Museum’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of Mercado’s first major TV show. On the big night, Mercado is clad in a spectacular and sparkling gold ensemble, and is carried on a golden throne into the adoring crowd. Just a few months later, Walter Mercado would pass away — but this already looks like his vision of how he would enter heaven.