For most of Chely Wright’s 42 years, the sometimes chart-topping country musician prayed to God to help her not be gay, but she probably should have asked him to help her not be a country musician. Wright was the first, and is still the only, person in her line of work to have publicly come out as gay. In the new documentary Chely Wright: Wish Me Away, it’s hard to tell whether that act of bravery is augmented or undercut by her lifelong dream of succeeding in a genre that both embraces and encourages social conservatism (Wright’s own hit single, “Single White Female,” is a good example).
Filmed with all the visual flourish of a VH1 special, the documentary by Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf is nevertheless often moving, particularly during the grainy, self-made video diaries that Wright made during times of emotional distress in the months leading up to her coming out. Wright grew up in small town Kansas, but just because her family’s from a red state doesn’t mean they’re not supportive: her father accompanies her to an appearance on Oprah to tell the audience how proud he is of her, and her sister delves into being an advocate with enthusiasm she normally reserves for baked goods.
Instead, most of the film’s conflict comes from Wright herself. She describes the painful lengths she went through to deny or just plain hide her attraction to women –— evading personal questions in interviews, dating men (country musician Brad Paisley), and breaking up with a woman she loved. Wright has been intensely religious her entire life, and still is, appearing several times awkwardly with her accepting “spiritual advisor” and recounting the tension between being Christian and being gay. But her fear of disappointing God seems almost secondary to her fear of disappointing her fans: Wright’s own conflict about her sexuality is straightforward compared to her relationship with being a country music star.
Chely Wright understands the difference between simply making a living playing music and making a living as a public persona, and her goal ever since she was a child has always been the latter. In a telling clip, she describes her job as “making people like [her].” While directors don’t show us more than a couple clips of interviews with Wright’s fans, they do show us a lot of her fretting about losing them as it gets closer and closer to her coming out media blitz: a tell-all book deal, a new record, a national news interview, and appearances on both LGBT and country music radio shows. At times, in fact, the documentary itself feels like a late entry into the campaign it chronicles, another effort to help Wright find and maintain an audience.
That’s hardly a criticism: its glimpses into the meticulously controlled and coordinated public reveal are the film’s most interesting moments. Wright’s aging feminist editor, for instance, pisses the musician off by insisting that a bikini photo shoot she did years ago was another example of her living a lie: when Wright, who has wanted to be in the public spotlight since she can remember, says “this is who I am,” it’s pretty easy to believe her. But identity isn’t much without community, and part of Wright’s coming out isn’t so much about preserving her relationship with current fans as learning how to seek out new ones. While she’s had a lifetime of being gay, Wright still needs a media coach to teach her the right vocabulary to talk about her sexuality. Even as she tries to become a role model and activist, encouraging other gay people to be unafraid to be themselves, as a public figure, authenticity still takes practice.