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Documenting the life of Chely Wright

Wish Me Away – film review.

Award winning documentry Wish Me Away opens with a video diary clip of country singer Chely Wright as she counts down to her public coming out. What follows is a compelling and engaging film about Wright’s own journey to that point. We see her putting the finishing touches on her autobiography (which launched the same day as her coming out announcement) interspersed by interviews with her family, friends and industry insiders, including both her former and current managers.

Chely Wright may not be a household name for those who are not familiar with country music, but she was well known in the genre with hits like “Single White Female” and “Shut up and Drive”. Her decision to come out publicly was a big one, and marks the first time a mainstream country artist has ever done so.

In an age where it is becoming more commonplace to have celebrities come out, it may be hard for the average person to understand Wright’s fear of losing her career over her sexuality. But country music expects a great deal of conformity from their artists, and growing up smack in the middle of the bible belt made Wright acutely aware of those expectations at a young age. Wish Me Away successfully reveals how hard Wright worked to meet those expectations. To hear her speak of the deal she made with God when she was a young girl, to take away her gayness, is quite heartbreaking.

Chely Wright

Early on we learn that Wright’s concerns with public perception were so huge that she felt she had to hide her lesbianism from everybody in her life, even those closest to her. So what is perhaps most striking about this documentary, is just how much personal access Wright granted the filmmakers Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf. Wright shares her personal video diaries and she candidly speaks about buying a gun with the intention of killing herself. Wright’s new found openness represents a huge turn around in her thought process, and it is inspiring to witness. This epiphany is best summed up by Wright herself when she says, “I’m just trying to live [my life] openly and honestly because living it not openly, not honestly, about killed me.”

There are some noticeable absences in the film. We are made aware of the very difficult relationship Wright has with her mother, who appears only briefly, the conflict between them and her absence from the remainder of the film are never truly explained. Throughout the documentary it is also clear that Wright is trying to reconcile her religious faith with her orientation and we are privy to meetings she has with her spiritual advisor. Although these meetings are very affirming, we don’t get a clear sense of how this advisor fits into her life, or in the southern church (and it’s entrenched reputation for not being accepting of gays).

Ultimately interviews with Wright’s father resonate most profoundly. This is a man who likely would have struggled with the idea that his daughter is gay, and yet in a clip from the now infamous Oprah Winfrey interview, Winfrey asks Wright’s father why his perception of gay people changed after his daughter came out. He responded with tears in his eyes, “I knew her. I knew her heart, I knew her soul. A good person …. The most simplest thing I can say to anyone is do not close the door but open the heart.” Perhaps with that one statement, Wright’s father can help to change as many hearts and minds as his courageous daughter.

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Official Wish Me Away trailer:

Wish Me Away will be screening as part of the Inside Out Film Festival in Toronto Sat May 26th, 2012 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. At 7:15 PM (Cinema 2) – and Chely is set to be there in person!

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