BY GARY M. KRAMER | One does not have to listen to — or even like — country music to appreciate the emotion-filled, confessional documentary “Wish Me Away,” a film that recounts the historic coming out of singer/ songwriter Chely Wright.
Wright’s story of fear and courage is told through a seamless integration of her songs, photos, and videos (both personal and professional), as well as interviews with the singer’s family, friends, colleagues, and supporters. The result is not just a compelling portrait of a country music superstar struggling with her sexuality, but also a revealing behind-the-scenes look at how her public coming out campaign was orchestrated.
For viewers unfamiliar with the country music star from Wellsville, Kansas, “Wish Me Away” documents Wright’s place in the Nashville scene. She won the Top New Female Vocalist award from the Academy of Country Music in 1995. She then had a hit song with “Shut Up and Drive,” and later went to #1 on the country music charts with her single “Single White Female.”
The film also shows how “no one is out in Nashville” and that country music — long representative of the flag, the family, and God — may not be ready for an openly gay performer. As end credit notes show, they may still not be.
“Wish Me Away” only briefly addresses the professional ramifications of Wright’s coming out. This is disappointing given the emphasis everyone in the film places on the potential for damaging her career her announcement created. More should have been included about how Wright’s music career suffered as a result of her declaration she is a lesbian. The film merely suggests that it did.
The real focus of this intimate documentary is Wright’s struggle with a lifetime of lying about her sexuality. Viewers follow her years-long journey and root for Wright as she goes from closeted star to bold, out lesbian waving the rainbow flag at Pride events.
As she wrestles with her decision to break her silence, beset by shame, Wright is likable and appealing. Personal clips of her interacting with her sister are charming and funny. And she is touching in segments that reveal a scared young woman on the brink of personal freedom.
Wright explains how self-hatred led her to reject the example of out lesbian Billie Jean King. She also acknowledges botched romantic relationships, admitting she was unfair in her breakups with fellow country music star Brad Paisley as well as a woman she loved and lived with. Wright’s candor is authentic, and it provides a deeper understanding of how secretive — and tortured — she was.
By articulating what held her back, Wright makes clear just how liberating her coming out was, offering, in the process, an inspirational lesson for her fans and the film’s audience.
Wright’s struggle was handled with grace and tears, and she went through the familiar stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The singer weeps throughout the film, telling stories of lying about and hiding her sexuality. Particularly moving are discussions between Wright and her pastor, Reverend Dr. C. Welton Gaddy. She lets loose her tears describing her suicide attempt and her efforts to pray away the gay.
Viewers will likely cry as well. It’s hard not to well up with tears and admiration when Wright’s father discusses how much he loves his daughter on “Oprah.”
When she came out, Wright did so in a very public campaign. Talking to celebrity publicist Howard Bragman, she is seen learning how to answer questions about her self-acceptance and counter attacks from fans who might feel betrayed. His advice is useful, and it assuages her fears about backlash.
“Wish Me Away” provides a valuable tool for anyone needing to find self-acceptance and confidence in the coming out process. Wright’s lessons resonate well beyond the already ample legions of country music fans.
WISH ME AWAY | Directed by Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf |First Run Features | Opens Jun. 1 | Quad Cinema | 34 W. 13th St. | quadcinema.com