Thirty-five minutes into the documentary film of her life, Wish Me Away, singer Chely Wright tells Baptist minister C. Welton Gaddy of a moment of such personal despair that she put a loaded pistol into her mouth. It may be difficult to understand what could have precipitated an existential crisis this dire in a woman who has millions of fans. In her recent autobiography, Like Me, she describes the moment in clinical detail:
I go upstairs and locate a loaded 9-millimeter handgun. It is heavier than I remember. I say a prayer to God to forgive me and to understand why I can’t go on anymore like this. I beg God to realize that I will never be able to fit into the life that I’ve created, that I will never be accepted.
I pick up the gun and put the end of it in my mouth. It’s cold. I hold it steady and get my right thumb on the trigger and prepare to pull it by pushing it outward. I close my eyes . . . thumb still on the trigger. My mind is going a million miles an hour. I think of my family, my dogs, my friends, my fans, the sun, a kiss from Julia, and music.
Then I hear a noise. It is the sound of my heart pounding in my head.
Wright knew from childhood that she was gay. She also knew from childhood that she wanted to be a country music star. In the close-knit, even hermetic, world of this music, with its overheated refrains of lost love and betrayal, of passionate longing and unfulfilled dreams—the lyrical focus is uniformly heterosexual. And neither Wright’s choice of songs nor the casual grace of her beauty would suggest the conflict that raged in her soul.
That conflict would not be quiescent even as her rising star in the capital of country music shone ever brighter during the mid-nineties. She was named “Top New Female Vocalist” by the Academy of Country Music in 1995. For the next decade, she was nominated for numerous of C/W’s most prestigious awards including that of the Country Music Association in 2001 for her duet with Brad Paisley, Hard to Be a Husband, Hard to Be a Wife. In the media she was romantically linked to Paisley.
Eventually, the moral conflict between the person she knew she was and the persona she adopted in the music world proved too much, even with the anxiety she had of her mother’s harsh judgment and that of her heartland communities in Kansas and Missouri. Wright made a decision to “come out” despite a clear realization of the potential career consequences. Over a three-year period, she worked with filmmakers Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf to craft a documentary about her life from girlhood to stardom.
The distinguishing element that gives the film such unique resonance is Wright’s use of a personal video camera to photograph herself as she, week by week, day by day, approaches the date in May, 2010 when she decides to go public with her lesbianism. Her choice was not the simple action of a press release made by a publicity agent or manager, but her own decision to appear on the talk show circuit including Today, Oprah, and especially Ellen de Generes. She also garnered the cover story of the May 5, 2010 issue of People Magazine.
The multi-media announcement was also co-ordinated with the release of her memoir, Like Me.
The film, Wish Me Away, has been acquired by First Run Features for a Spring 2012 release. Here is a trailer that includes a few seconds from her video diary.
The documentary tracks not just Wright’s personal journey toward and after the declaration of her gayness, but offers insight into the support system within the LGBT community. One of the ironies suggested in the film is the downward spiral of her relationship with the memoir’s book editor, the highly regarded feminist Victoria Wilson, with whom she eventually experiences irreconcilable differences. An imdb credit check shows that Wilson's name is not listed in the “cast and crew” block. The story behind that generational dust-up of depictions of female sexuality could be its own movie.
Wright’s personal journey proved to be even more difficult for her as her performance persona was not that of a stalwart flannel and Levis countrywoman, but of a sexually alluring, come hither, even pneumatic, object of testosterone fantasy. A photo shoot for FHM magazine represents one such portrait of male desire.
Many of her videos also promote the image of a flirtatious, sexually charged woman, strong in her sense of self but unmistakably heterosexual. Shut Up and Drive, from her 1997 album Let Me In was her first breakthrough hit and it early on established her persona.
Originally scheduled for release on September 11, 2001 Wright’s fifth album, Never Love You Enough, was delayed because of the attack on the World Trade Center. When released some weeks later, the featured song, Jezebel, further demonstrated her sensuality with one costume revealing both a bare midriff and a Christian crucifix dangling along with assorted jewelry from her neck; the video’s naughty but nice tone, ending with a male lover, wet from falling rain, finding shelter with her as she closes the apartment door behind him, all the while sharing a glance with the viewer.
Perhaps the most revealing, personal, intimate revelations that Wright made outside of her book came with her appearance on the Ellen de Generes talk show; the TV host had been an inspiration for Wright; de Generes’ mother’s book about her daughter gave Wright both hope and courage that she could come out as a lesbian, that she could finally honor herself and her fans with the truth of whom she was. There is a special tone to the Ellen appearance, an easy-going frankness and even humor that comes out of a discussion with another gay woman who can understand and embrace her. Wright tells Ellen how her mother’s book made it possible for her to talk to her own dad.
The more than three month location shoot of Country Strong in the winter of 2010 gave me, director Shana Feste, and the production crew a privileged window into the music world of Nashville. The downtown clubs of lower Broadway, the Ryman Auditorium, the dozens of major recording studios of Music Row, all opened their doors to us. It certainly proved an asset that our film’s star was Tim McGraw, one of the most admired of Nashville artists. One of the cast also was the female songwriter, Marshall Chapman, a woman much esteemed by the community. In the closed loop of our film crew I was not aware of overt homophobia; in fact, there were plentiful signs of a thriving gay music community. Nashville is, after all, not some backwater tank town, but a multi-cultural city that supports its own thriving theater, ballet company, and a world-class symphony orchestra housed in a majestic new hall across from the Country Music Hall of Fame.
But there is no question that there is a large investment in the community’s avowed allegiance to conventional heterosexuality; many of the dedicated C/W fans are not only conservative Christians but view anything other than man/woman sexuality as perversity and an abomination before God; yet one of the keen ironies of Wright’s life is her unshakeable belief in traditional Christianity.
It would be the height of hubris for a heterosexual male, especially one from the more rarefied climes of a self-proclaimed, enlightened Hollywood, to presume any meaningful understanding of the arc of Wright’s decision to declare her gayness. But the one thing any working professional in the world of entertainment can understand is “career suicide.” And it is just that possibility that Wright was considering as she began her video diaries, a deeply personal and moving journal which ultimately found its way into the film by Bobbie Berleffi and Beverly Kopf. In an interview at the film’s premiere, Berleffi explained the bottom line consequences within the music community of Wright’s decision to come out:
You have to distinguish between the industry in Nashville -- the market image — and the people who work in the industry. It's a hip industry and there are tons of gay people working in Nashville. But as far as high profile artists go, we couldn't get one to step forward to support Chely - not a single one and she's friends with a lot of those people — because the audience that the people rely on for their paycheck is an audience that is Christian based and conservative.
But overriding any pragmatic, professional impact of her broad-based decision to declare herself as gay is the fundamental responsibility Wright felt to herself. She speaks about it and the solace she finds from new friends in the LGBT world in another teaser from the film.
A case could be made about Wright’s coming out as simply, “So what?” She’s hardly the first public figure or even the first musical artist to declare herself. But to her demographic, to her musical world, it’s a very big deal and she has paid for it. According to Nielsen SoundScan, her sales have dropped by close to two-thirds since she had a multi-media assault on the lie of her public life. Her most recent album, Lifted Off the Ground, departs from the narrow tropes of C/W music in favor of a more intimate, less “produced” sound. Her personal anthem, Like Me, is the one song she held back from her producer until near the end of their sessions. She had written all the songs for this album except for one co-written by that producer, Rodney Crowell. Finally, she knew she had to let him hear it so she emailed it.
It’s difficult to know what the future holds for Chely Wright. Last summer she married her partner Lauren Blitzer. When the documentary is finally released this spring, many who have not been familiar with, or are even hostile, to her music and identity as a country/western queen, will hear her deeply emotional story. The media hype has abated; Wright has found and has been embraced by a new community. An interview in last September’s The Seattle Lesbian explores this new life and the direction of her music.
Many observers and critics have commented on how personal video cameras have altered the structure of documentary filmmaking. Much has been made about their portability and ease of recording, with so many built-in auto-features that the most inexperienced person can capture reasonably slick images. What is less noted is the very human, intimate window into a personal life that these devices afford. It is no accident that Wright first turned to a video camera to set down her conflicts and hopes, that the book, Like Me, came after, even partly evolved from her video diary.
I have had the privilege for some years to serve on the DGA nominating committee for the documentary award category. I have seen this phenomenon of the personal documentary evolve from pioneering attempts using film cameras and Nagras such as Ross McElwee's 1986 Sherman's March, to the totally (or apparently) spontaneous and improvised video notebook films so ubiquitous today. Last year's Oscar nominated Afghan War documentary Restrepo was made not by "filmmakers" but by print journalist Sebastian Junger and the late still photographer Tim Hetherington, with some sequences photographed by the Restrepo firebase soldiers on patrol and under fire.
The documentary Wish Me Away, especially the video diaries segments, provides compelling witness to the power of this technique as it dramatizes the fear and agony that Wright has lived since childhood; and it offers many young people whom Wright most wants to reach, guidance and hope in their own search for identity, young people who feel alone against the precepts of a constricted community hell-bent on harsh judgment, who invoke a god of wrath rather than one of love.
HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL.
Next: The New York Times' "The Year in Pictures."
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