Directed by Bobbie Birleffi, Beverly Kopf. STC. 96 min. Opens Sept. 26 at Bloor Hot Docs.
In the spring of 2010, rumours spread that a mondo celebrity would be coming out of the closet in a very public way, igniting a small brushfire of gleeful speculation: Could it be Oprah? Or, perish the thought, Queen Latifah? When the subject of those rumours turned out to be Chely Wright, a country singer who had a handful of hits in the late ’90s and early 2000s, the news was met in most circles with more head-scratching confusion than pearl-clutching gasps.
And yet, in the flag-waving, family values–touting, tight-knit circles that comprise New Country music, Wright’s revelation was scandalous, and her struggle to stop “living a lie” (as she puts it) was monumental. At least, that’s the clear message we’re meant to take away from Wish Me Away, a heartfelt but wildly uneven documentary that maps out the painful months leading up to the singer’s public outing. Filmmakers Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf weave together interviews, archival footage showcasing Wright’s big-haired Opry performances, behind-the-scenes glimpses of the meticulously orchestrated coming-out process, and Wright’s own video blogs. Of those devices, the latter two are the most fascinating, but save for a raw moment when Wright has an expletive-riddled breakdown, even they feel maddeningly myopic and carefully edited.
Part of the problem here has to do with the insularity of Wright’s world—because she’s been sheltered from not just LGBTQ culture, but non-Nashville culture for so long, she lacks any perspective beyond her own god-fearing heartland experience. (We’re repeatedly told she’s the first out gay country singer, as though k.d. lang is Santa Claus.) She’s shaken and terrified, and the filmmakers treat her with kid gloves, eschewing probing questions in favour of platitudes. Ultimately, Wright’s not the first queer to emerge from a devoutly religious and conservative context, but you’d never know from Wish Me Away, which makes the whole thing feel like more of a promotional exercise than a hard-hitting documentary.