Thursday, October 20, 2011

Next month at Denver Fest: Wish Me Away

On today of all days, I'm especially pleased and proud to announce that I'll be conducting an on-stage Q&A with singer-songwriter Chely Wright and filmmakers Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf at next month's Starz Denver Film Festival after the Nov. 4 festival screening of Wish Me Away, the spirit-lifting, prize-winning documentary about Wright's bold decision to stride out of the closet and stand tall as a role model.

As I noted in my Variety review after the film's premiere last spring at the Nashville Film Festival, Wish Me Away is fascinating both as a biographical portrait of 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 that many might view as career suicide.

Co-directors Birleffi and Knopf begin by tracing Wright's rise as a small-town girl (born in Wellsville, Kansas) who manages to fulfill her childhood dreams of success as a country music singer-songwriter in Nashville. Unfortunately, dreams have a nasty habit of turning into nightmares.

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 film'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. Trouble is, success only served to intensify her determination to live a lie while in the spotlight -– even while, off stage and in secret, she shared a home with a female lover. Deception and denial took a heavy toll: At one point, Wright says, she placed the barrel of a gun in her mouth, and seriously considered pulling the trigger.

All of which makes it all the more satisfying when, after accompanying Wright on her journey of self-discovery, we get to see her at the end of Wish Me Away as she is now -- obviously happier for being honest to and about herself, and determined to use her “public capital” as a celebrity to provide comfort and encouragement for young gay people who fear rejection or worse if they come out.

Yeah, I know: The above paragraph is something of a spoiler. But there are days when I think it's forgivable to tell people about a happy ending even before they actually see the movie that contains it. Especially when some of those people might need to be reassured that, yes, it really does get better.

(BTW: If you can't make it to Denver, don't fret -- Wish Me Away also will be screened Nov. 10 at the Houston Cinema Arts Festival.

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