An inspirational account of coming out, “Wish Me Away” is fascinating both as a biographical portrait of Chely Wright, the first significant American country music artist to openly identify herself as gay, and as a backstage look at how an entertainer prepares to make a revelation many might view as career suicide. Winner of the top documentary prize at the Los Angeles Film Festival, pic doubtless will travel far on the global fest circuit, and very likely could score in selected theatrical outings. Don’t be surprised if doc also is used to raise funds and consciousness by nonprofit groups.
Filmed over a three-year period by documakers Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf, “Wish Me Away” introduces Wright as a small-town girl (born in Wellsville, Kan.) who fulfilled her childhood dreams of success as a country singer-songwriter in Nashville. Yet even as she developed a loyal audience, earned accolades (including the Academy of Country Music’s 1995 prize for top new female vocalist) and climbed the charts with popular singles (such as the No. 1 hit “Single White Female”), Wright was tormented by guilt and fear while hiding and often denying her sexual orientation.
During her youth in Wellsville, Wright admits in one of the pic’s affectingly blunt-spoken interviews, she prayed every night: “Dear God, please don’t let me be gay.” The product of a conservative religious upbringing — and the daughter of an unstable, affection-withholding mother — she arrived in Nashville determined to take Music City by storm. But success only intensified her determination to live a lie while in the spotlight; offstage, she shared a home with a female lover, only to find that deception and denial took a heavy toll.
Docu is structured more or less as a countdown to the day in 2010 when Wright came out very publicly — with a tell-all autobiography, a People magazine profile and appearances on “Oprah” and “The Today Show” — after months of carefully coordinated planning that, the filmmakers indicate, was only slightly less meticulous than the run-up to D-Day.
Not surprisingly, Wright occasionally has second thoughts and worries about the reactions of her fans and music-industry associates. “Wish Me Away” is especially intriguing as it offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of Wright seeking spiritual guidance and professional pointers during the weeks prior to her coming out.
The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, the avuncular president of Interfaith Alliance, is warmly supportive, but warns of a possible backlash from conservative Christian country fans. (“There’s nobody quite as mean,” he says only half-jokingly, “as people being mean for Jesus.”) Media-training specialist Howard Bragman coaches Wright in the fine art of finessing interviews. At all times, he cautions, words must be carefully chosen; for example, she should “acknowledge,” not “admit,” she is gay.
Wright proves to be an apt pupil, but reserves the right to reject certain lessons. While recording an entry for her video diary, she’s furiously foul-mouthed as she recalls the comments of an image-conscious book editor, an ardent feminist who criticized Wright for having posed in revealing attire for promotional photos and videos. Being gay, Wright defiantly insists, doesn’t mean you can’t be sexy.
Pic earns points for its evenhandedness while frequently emphasizing that members and fans of the country-music scene are neither more nor less homophobic than the general U.S. populace. In this regard, figures such as famed music producer Rodney Crowell and Oak Ridge Boys vocalist Richard Sterban come across as admirably accepting.
If the filmmakers’ overall depiction of Wright borders on the hagiographic, the singer herself doesn’t shy away from self-criticism. At one point, Wright admits to being thoroughly dishonest with herself and Brad Paisley when she pursued, then abruptly ended, a high-profile relationship with the country superstar.
Tech values are first-rate. Pic wisely includes enough musicvideo clips to prove that the lady really can sing — and, yes, look very sexy while doing so.