“Rufus Wainwright: Prima Donna,” a journeyman docu about the singer-songwriter’s first foray into opera, both suffers and benefits from the flamboyantly gay egocentrism that marks all the musician’s endeavors (though Wainwright’s opera is titled “Prima Donna,” the docu’s titular colon sends a mixed message). Certainly, helmer George Scott allows his subject’s self-image to shape the film with little interference, mixing Wainwright’s autobiographical reminiscences into the pic’s making-of-an-opera thrust. Scott offers his subject an almost entirely uncritical stage, except when posing the all-important question: Can he write a valid opera? Docu should thrive in arts-oriented cable outlets.
Pegging Wainwright as an engaging ham from early childhood, the film is liberally studded with videotapes of early musical efforts, from living-room performances of Tosca (involving cape-twirling and extended death throes) to college renditions of “When I Was a Lad” from “H.M.S. Pinafore.” Key biographical events are memorialized by impromptu piano-accompanied songs or solo concert footage, his re-creation of Judy Garland’s 1961 Carnegie Hall appearance and his zesty impersonation of Garland’s “Get Happy” reigning supreme.
Still, a surprising amount of basic exposition slips between the cracks. Throughout numerous interviews with Wainwright’s long-divorced parents, nobody mentions that mom Kate McGarrigle was a professional folk singer and dad Loudon Wainwright III a Grammy winner. And sister Martha’s folk-rocker career is intuited only from chance remarks.
But the major “Prima Donna” of Scott’s documentary is not Wainwright himself but his opera (which opened in Manchester in July 2009. Pic follows Wainwright through various phases of production, from orchestration (via computer) to initial run-throughs, rehearsals and performance. Unlike such pop artists as Pete Townshend, Paul McCartney or Green Day, whose genre-crossing efforts barely adapted their modern musical idiom to older conventions, Wainwright qualifies as a lifelong opera buff and eagerly accedes to traditional modes of expressivity (indeed, many complain his opera is not modern enough).
But while Wainwright’s trump card is his individualism, opera requires collaboration. His chosen partner, co-librettist Bernadette Colomine, stands as his sole ally against the members of the operatic establishment who smell hubris, though Scott invites soprano Renee Fleming to chime in occasionally with sympathetic commentary.
Wainwright’s struggles to work with conductor Pierre-Andre Valade (whose orchestral ideas rarely conform to his own) and director Daniel Kramer (insistent on accentuating the narrative’s dramatic swings, regardless of the score) breed compromises that the musician unconvincingly declares, after the fact, to have been quite helpful. One of the docu’s most fascinating ambiguities is the extent to which collaborators’ doubts about Wainwright’s competence spring from genuine musical concerns or strictly from prejudice against anyone who has not paid his dues. As for the opera itself, about a prima donna (Janis Kelly) who loses her voice, the jury never weighs in: Scott gives viewers only tantalizing glimpses of the finished work, including its big setpiece, the closing “Fireworks” aria.
Tech credits merit bravos, Scott’s excellent team of lensers amplifying Wainwright’s bold color choices and the atmospheric lighting of his magnum opus.