‘Wish Me Away’ follows singer Chely Wright's coming-out story
For numerous actors and musicians who have come out as gay, the experience has proved to be a celebration of individuality and honesty, with little or no visible career damage. But not so for country music sensation Chely Wright.
Wright burst onto the country music scene in 1994, and was named top new female vocalist by the Academy of Country Music in 1995. Fueled by such hits as her first Top 40 country single, 1997’s “Shut Up and Drive” and, two years later, the No. 1 smash “Single White Female,” Wright’s albums have sold more than a million copies in the U.S. alone. But all the while she harbored a deep secret, and a fear that revealing herself to be a lesbian would have severe professional consequences. As it turned out, her trepidation was not unfounded.
Wright’s challenging journey is examined in the documentary “Chely Wright: Wish Me Away,” which opens in L.A. on Friday. The film is also currently available on video-on-demand and for rental on iTunes.
Becoming the subject of a feature film was hardly on Wright’s mind in 2007 when, after considering suicide, she embarked on an arduous yet carefully orchestrated path to coming out. That included writing a memoir (“Like Me,” published in 2010) and recording a series of emotionally raw video diaries.
But when Wright was introduced to filmmakers Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf — a lesbian couple whose 2006 documentary “Be Real: Stories From Queer America” had greatly impressed Wright — she decided to place her still-unfolding saga in their hands. The result was an intimate, three-year collaboration.
Although the subject matter was close to the filmmakers’ hearts, they, like Wright, had to adjust to the situation’s uncertainty and let events develop organically. “We were very clear from the beginning that you weren’t going to feel our hand in it trying to control or manipulate the story in any way,” said Kopf.
And what a story it was, with one of its most pivotal strands demanding a close-up on Nashville, where Wright was once a hugely popular fixture and where she lived for 19 years until moving to New York in 2008.
But ever since she unveiled her true self in May 2010 with a one-two punch in People magazine and on the “Today” show, the singer-songwriter says she has been largely rejected by the tight-knit country music capital — and the country music machine in general.
“They just got really silent on me,” remarked Wright.
According to Wright, her record sales fell to around one-third of their previous level, invitations to major country music events dried up, and she has received hate mail and threatening letters. Perhaps most notably, Nashville’s famed Grand Ole Opry, where Wright performed more than 100 times, has yet to ask her back.
Wright’s last album, “Lifted Off the Ground,” released in 2010 in sync with her revelatory media blitz, was greeted by mixed reviews, virtually no airplay on mainstream country radio and weak business.
In addition, since she came out, hardly any of Wright’s country music contemporaries have publicly supported her. “On a human level,” said Wright, “I wonder why they can’t see the value that I told my biggest secret — particularly when you think it might get you excommunicated from your house of worship, your social circles and your industry.”
(Last week, country music superstar Carrie Underwood voiced support for marriage equality in the British newspaper the Independent, though Wright was not mentioned in the article).
Birleffi and Kopf said they encountered resistance when they tried to film in Nashville. “Going in, we didn’t know what the town’s reaction would be to us filming the story there,” said Birleffi. “When we began trying to book interviews and do research it turned out to be really hard.”
“They didn’t exactly greet us with open arms,” added Kopf.
As an example, the filmmakers said representatives of the Opry took 18 months to approve their requests to use Opry-related footage in the movie. Finally, Birleffi and Kopf recruited openly gay Nashville insider and former record company executive Fletcher Foster to help them navigate the local waters. In spring 2011, after he showed the Opry a pre-licensed cut of the movie that was about to be screened as part of the Nashville Film Festival, they allowed the use of most of the requested footage.
Birleffi and Kopf also filmed parts of “Wish Me Away” in and around Wright’s hometown of Wellsville, Kan., where the filmmakers captured her close and evolving relationships with her father, sister, career-Marine brother and other family members. But Wright’s mother — with whom the singer has had increasingly limited contact — is only briefly seen in the movie.
“I did not want my mom approached” by the filmmakers, Wright said. “When I found out they had filmed her — they found her behind my back — I flipped out. But in reality, I knew that it needed to be in there.”
Far more gratifying for Wright was seeing her young nephew Max’s regretful on-camera confession regarding his once-negative feelings toward gays and lesbians. Wright considers his poignant interview “the most significant part of the film.”
Max’s turnaround upon learning his aunt was gay is the kind of reaction that Wright, who lives in New York with wife Lauren Blitzer (the pair married last year), hopes “Wish Me Away” will provoke in viewers.
“I want it to change hearts and minds. I want it to challenge stereotypes,” said Wright, who is writing a new country album. “I also hope that people who don’t think that they know anybody like me might come across it and realize that you don’t have to be gay to believe in the equality movement — you just have to be human.”
— Gary Goldstein
Photos: (Top) Chely Wright singing at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville in 2010 in a scene from the film. Credit: Tanya Braganti / First Run Features. (Bottom) Beverly Kopf, Chely Wright and Bobbie Birleffi attend a screening of "Chely Wright: Wish Me Away" on June 1 in New York City. Credit: Jason Kempin / Getty Images