Sunday, November 6, 2011

SDFF Review: Documentary "Wish Me Away" paints an intimate portrait of country artist Chely Wright's incredible courage

Film Rating: A–

“Wish Me Away” is one of the most disarmingly candid documentaries I have ever seen.  It tells the story of Country Music artist Chely Wright, who in May 2010 became the first major country star to come out as gay.  The documentary was filmed over a three-year period, beginning shortly after Wright had decided to come out, and throughout it all, the artist is amazingly open and honest about every detail of her life.  It is as if Chely is in the room with us, telling her stories and inviting audiences to share in all the ups and downs of her incredible life.  The portrait that emerges is not of a celebrity, but of a person, a human being full of strengths and weaknesses just like the rest of us.  Her decision to come out against truly remarkable odds speaks to a strength inherent in all of us, and though parts of her story are dark and difficult, the tone that shines through isn’t despairing, but uplifting and inspirational.  Review continues after the jump...

To create such an intimate portrait, directors Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf (who gave a very pleasant Q&A after the screening) utilize just about every trick in the documentary book (literally, as I just read that chapter for film class), including new and archival interviews, audio clip, pictures, Wright’s own songs and music videos, and most importantly, fly-on-the-wall observational filming to capture the artist at one of the most difficult times in her life.  The big emotional beats come from two specific sources scattered throughout the film: video diaries Wright made in the months leading up to her coming out, and a therapeutic discussion with her minister, both of which show Wright at her most piercingly emotional and honest.  Other candidly captured moments reveal a casual, fun-loving Wright, and in all cases, she comes across as genuine, not manufactured, something that cannot be said about many celebrities. 

Birleffi and Kopf fashion this gargantuan assortment of source material into a comfortable 96-minute narrative that has purpose, weight, and direction at all times.  Like many documentaries, it is bloated, overemphasizing certain points and stopping a few too many times to appreciate Wright’s admittedly infectious music.  With a subject this rich, however, I can forgive some excess.  Above all else, the film is thorough, using Wright’s story to explore topics like sexuality, religion, society, politics, and the country music scene in frank, meaningful ways.

The dissection of religion hit me the hardest.  I have long been baffled by the outright hypocrisies in Christianity that tell us we should simultaneously love our neighbors while ostracizing homosexuals, and the documentary dives into this topic headfirst.  Religion and Homosexuality are so often presented as opposing forces, but “Wish Me Away” posits that the two can exist in beautiful harmony.   Wright is a devout Christian, and it is her faith in God that gave her the strength to come out.  Yet throughout her life, the Church has harmed her.  As a young girl, Sunday services made her fearful of being honest about her sexuality, and as an adult, those widespread, misguided religious beliefs made it dangerous for her to come out, especially within the Country community.  One of the most inspiring parts of the film, then, is watching Wright manage to not only maintain her faith, but to strengthen it, to forge a relationship with God more meaningful than those preaching hate will ever experience.

“Wish Me Away” also takes a powerful look at the nature of celebrity.  Wright comes to recognize the responsibilities she holds as a famous person, and the role she can play in the lives of young people like her, similarly frightened to be honest with themselves and with others.  She realizes that she has the power to effect change, to be a role model in society, and that, more than anything else, compels her to come out.  This is in stark contrast to the general Country Music scene, which uses its power in society to uphold outdated values.  For Wright to go against Nashville was a huge risk, one that has already harmed her career.  Wright chose to embrace responsibilities her industry won’t touch, and in my mind, she is a hero for doing so. 

As powerful as the film is, I fear those who most need to hear the message will not see it.  Looking around the auditorium and gauging general reaction, my screening was clearly full of open-minded people predisposed to care for Chely’s plight.  Her kindness, heroism, and strife surely proved uplifting to this audience, but not revelatory.  I, for instance, was most surprised to learn that there actually is suh a thing as enjoyable Country music, while there are others in the world who should see this to have their eyes opened in more substantial ways.  How could one exit the theatre not loving Wright, regardless of her sexuality?  She is a wonderful, charitable human, a talented country singer, and a decorated American who supports our troops passionately.  She has earned the title “patriot” more than most in this country.  Those who would label her differently are the ones who most need to see “Wish Me Away.”    

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