Chely Wright: Wish Me Away


Chely Wright: All-American girl.(2011) Documentary (First Run) Chely Wright, Stan Wright, Rodney Crowell, Russell Carter, Rosie O’Donnell, Christopher Wright, Cherie Combs, Don Cusic, Natalie Morales, Chuck D. Waiter, Jennifer Archer, Welton Gaddy, Howard Bragman, Blair Garner, Meredith Vieira, Tony Brown, Richard Sterban, Charlene Daniels. Directed by Bobbie Berleffi and Beverly Kopf

I am not a big fan of country music; it’s nothing against those who play it or those who listen to it, it’s just that the music doesn’t connect with me in the same way rap doesn’t connect with me. I’m a rock and roll boy, plain and simple, but I do respect country for many reasons; it’s songwriting in most cases stripped down to the essentials, telling stories and making characters that live and are relatable to a vast audience.

More important in my opinion is the relationship between the musicians and the fans. Now, country music fans are no more rabid than fans of other musical genres when it comes to loving their appointed obsessions, but it is from the other direction that the true magic happens. The performers of no other genre appreciate their fans as much as those in country music overall. Despite the often cutthroat nature of the business end of country music (which is the same as in other genres), the performers tend to reflect traditional American values. It’s what their fans expect.

Given that the majority of country music listeners tend to lean politically to the right (ask the Dixie Chicks about that sometime), it was virtually unthinkable that any artist would come out as gay. There is a very strong fundamentalist Christian element in not only the fan base of country music but also in the music itself, which very much espouses Christian values and patriotic pride. In many ways, country music is the most quintessentially American music there is. In it is the optimism, the pride and the attitude that defines us not only to ourselves but to the world.

Chely Wright fit into that world like a glove at first glance. Hailing from mid-Kansas from a religious family, she was blessed with beauty queen looks. A supremely talented singer and songwriter, she burst onto the Nashville scene like a ray of sunshine on a rainy day and took Music City by storm. In time she had hits like “Shut Up and Drive” and “Single White Female.” She was dating Brad Paisley. You’d think she’d be on top of the world.

But she wasn’t. You see, she was harboring a secret – Chely Wright was a lesbian. Her biggest dream in the whole world, ever since she was a little girl, was to be a country music star and she believed that her sexual orientation might keep her from that dream. She resolved at an early age to keep her identity as a lesbian a secret; she would not pursue any intimate relationships with women and in doing so she’d achieve her dream. And achieve it she did.

But the cost was too high. The weight of her secret was a burden too powerful and too heavy to bear and eventually she found herself in front of a mirror with a gun in her mouth. She knew she couldn’t live this way any longer. She would have to stop living this life and come clean, not just for herself but for the many others like her, living with their own lies.

Chely’s coming out had to be handled very delicately and indeed it was. Publicists and marketing personnel sat down with her and orchestrated the campaign. It would be done, as all things in Chely’s life were, with music and in this case, also with a book. It would be a big deal. But before she could tell her fans, she had to tell her biggest fans first – her family.

Berleffi and Kopf were given extraordinary access into Chely’s world for three years leading up to her announcement and the days following it. They spoke with friends, family and fans, sometimes getting some truly moving material, as from her dad, her incredibly supportive sister and her Aunt Char – devout Christians all but also as non-judgmental a group as you’re likely to find.

But most moving of all is Chely’s own video diary, which she kept without the filmmakers knowledge. In it she revealed her most intimate thoughts and feelings, often so raw that you can’t help but cry along with her. When we use the term “courageous artist,” when referring to a singer/songwriter who reveals her most vulnerable side, it was invented for Chely Wright. Her dilemma of her childhood dream versus her identity is a struggle not many straight people may be able to relate to but I am sure a lot of LGBT readers instantly recognize a good deal of what Wright discusses as things and thoughts they went through.

The documentary isn’t breaking new ground in terms of presentation; it’s mainly interviews and archival footage but the video journal elevates this from merely typical and the presence of Ms. Wright herself makes this something special. Throughout you get a sense of her sincerity and her inner light, which you watch being extinguished and then miraculously relit when she finally does come out. Yes, it did cost her some of her fans but a surprisingly large number of them stayed right with her. It turns out that there is a lot more tolerance in the country music fan base than anyone, including Chely Wright herself, first thought. That’s heartening.

WHY RENT THIS: Wright is an impressive and courageous role model. Her video journal excerpts are particularly riveting.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The media management is a bit cynical.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult thematic material and a few mild cuss words here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The theme song for the film, “Shine a Light,” was written and recorded by Wright specifically for the film.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Home video footage of Chely and her wife relaxing at home.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $18,618 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental), Amazon (download only), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before You Know It
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Redemption

Sleepless in Seattle


An affair to truly remember.

An affair to truly remember.

(1993) Romance (Tri-Star) Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Rosie O’Donnell, Bill Pullman, Victor Garber, Ross Malinger, Rita Wilson, Carey Lowell, David Hyde Pierce, Barbara Garrick, Frances Conroy, Tom Riis Farrell, Rob Reiner, Gaby Hoffman, Dana Ivey, Calvin Trillin, Michael Badalucco, Kevin O’Morrison, La Clanche du Rand, Tom Tammi, Valerie Wright, Caroline Aaron. Directed by Nora Ephron

CINEMAOFTHEHEART-5

Back in the 90s (and who knows, maybe it’s still true) radio call-in shows were big. Many of them provided a kind of social service, therapy for those who couldn’t afford a therapist and didn’t mind thousands of people (and maybe millions in the case of syndicated talk show hosts) listened in on their problems and phobias.

Annie Reed (Ryan) is a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. She doesn’t really believe in romance, although she believes that she doesn’t want to be alone. She’s engaged to Walter (Pullman), a nice enough guy who clearly adores her but she just doesn’t feel inspired, particularly as Walter is allergic to – um, everything. She listens to the Dr. Marcia (Aaron) show late at night and yaks about it with her good friend and editor Becky (O’Donnell) the next day.

Sam Baldwin (Hanks) – not one of the lost Baldwin brothers – is in a deep funk. His wife Maggie (Lowell) succumbed to cancer a year and a half ago but things just aren’t getting any better, not even after moving to Seattle from Chicago with his son Jonah (Malinger). Jonah worries about his dad, who can’t seem to get past his wife’s death and resume living and maybe even find happiness. Sam is skeptical about it – he knew he had found his soulmate from the first touch. “It was magic,” he muses, “You don’t get that lucky twice.”

Jonah is so concerned that he phones in the Dr. Marcia show and calls his dad to the phone. Reluctantly he gets on and tells his story and as Dr. Marcia coaxes his feelings about Maggie out of him, Sam is so eloquent, so heartfelt, so lost that he stimulates the maternal instincts of every woman listening. From then on he gets bags of mail from women proposing marriage or just wanting to meet.

One of the listeners is Annie who is drawn to his story. After watching a rebroadcast of An Affair to Remember she impulsively writes an expressive letter to Sam, proposing that they meet at the top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day. At the urging of Becky (who also mails the letter after Annie chickens out), she flies out to Seattle to ostensibly do a story on the talk radio phenomenon but primarily to find Sam. However, after seeing him with his sister Suzy (Wilson) she gets the mistaken impression that he has a girlfriend and flees back to Baltimore, ready to marry Walter.

In the meantime, Jonah reads Annie’s letter and tries to get his dad, who by now is dating a co-worker (Garrick) that Jonah hates, to make the rendezvous but Sam refuses. Instead, Jonah writes Annie as Sam and tells her that he’ll be there.

More I will not tell you. Either you know what happens so there’s no point in recapping the plot further, or you don’t know and I don’t want to ruin the expert heartstring tugging you’ll undergo. Romantic movies tend to be very much formulaic these days, but this one is certainly not. Yes, it does borrow liberally from classic romances (particularly the aforementioned An Affair to Remember) but it’s smarter than most rom-coms and treats its audience as intelligent people while gently poking fun at how men and women express their emotions.

The interesting thing about this movie is that Hanks and Ryan spend very little screen time together but are often considered to be one of the prime screen couples of the last 20 years – yes, it’s been two decades since this came out. The characters are so compelling thanks in no small part to the sterling performances by Hanks and Ryan that people root for them to be together with unbridled fervor. The chemistry between the two is often discussed when this picture comes up for discussion, but maybe people are channeling their performances from Joe vs. the Volcano which they both previously starred in. They would go on to do one more movie together but for many they are the greatest screen couple since Hepburn and Tracy.

The interesting thing is that Walter, Annie’s fiancée, is really a nice guy whose only fault is that he’s not Tom Hanks. Pullman and O’Donnell both deliver solid supporting performances. The only acting letdown belongs to Malinger and it’s really through no fault of his own; the script (particularly during the last third which focuses more on him) calls on him to do more precocious things and instead of being cute it becomes painfully obnoxious. He’s one of those screen kids who knows better than adults and outwits them, often with the help of his friend Jessica (Hoffman).

This is one of the classic romantic movies. There are women who get misty-eyed at the mere mention of the film. As Valentine’s Day cuddle movies go, you could certainly do much worse. Undoubtedly putting this on the TV and snuggling up together with some microwaved popcorn and a couple of glasses of wine could lead to a memorable evening of your own.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific performances by Hanks and Ryan. The prototypical multi-hankie modern romance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The kid can be a bit obnoxious.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some mild bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The radio call-in listener Desperate in Denver is voiced by Nora Ephron.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The most recent limited edition Blu-Ray includes a separate score only track as well as a music video.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $227.8M on a $21M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: An Affair to Remember

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: The LEGO Movie

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey


Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

Elmo and Friend

(2011) Documentary (Submarine Deluxe) Kevin Clash, Whoopi Goldberg, Frank Oz, Rosie O’Donnell, Joan Ganz Cooney, Fran Brill, Caroll Spinney, Martin P. Robinson, Bill Baretta, Jim Henson, Bob Keeshan, Kermit Love. Directed by Constance Marks and Phillip Shane

 

Dreams come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some dream of being an artist, or an astronaut or a hero. Other dreams are smaller than that – some in fact downright pint-sized. Some dreams come covered in fur and foam.

Ever since he was a kid in Baltimore, Kevin Clash dreamed of being a puppeteer. One look at Sesame Street and he was hooked. So much so that he made his own puppet – out of the lining of his father’s overcoat. Rather than getting a spanking, he got encouragement which I believe qualifies his parents for instant admission to heaven right there.

While most kids in his working class neighborhood were playing sports, Kevin was putting on puppet shows. His early shows caught the eye of a children’s show host in the Baltimore area and before long Kevin was performing on television.

After graduating high school, he went to New York City to work on the old Captain Kangaroo show as an onscreen actor and puppeteer but his heart still belonged to Jim Henson and the Muppets which were just starting to take off. Kevin had learned everything he knew from watching Sesame Street but he needed to know more.

For that he needed a mentor and he couldn’t have asked for a better one than Kermit Love. Love was one of Henson’s go-to guys in terms of building and designing Muppets and although the name recalls one of Henson’s other creations, Kermit the Frog was actually created by Henson years before he met Love.

Love encouraged the young African-American puppeteer and gave him good career advice throughout Clash’s career. With Love’s encouragement, Clash got to work as a puppeteer on a Sesame Street Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade float which led him to getting a gig on Sesame Street itself.

It was there when a frustrated senior puppeteer threw a furry red Muppet at Clash and said “See what you can do with him” that Elmo was born. With the piping high voice and the insatiable need for hugs, Clash immediately saw that Elmo represented love. Children all over the world responded to Elmo, realizing that he needed them as much as they needed him.

This would take a toll on Clash’s marriage and home life. Although his relationship with his daughter seems to be pretty good, he expresses regret that he missed a lot of her childhood. Unfortunately, not a lot of that is explored to any extent in the documentary. In fact, we don’t even learn when or why his marriage ended (although given the time demands on Clash and his insistence that he do everything Elmo-related himself the reasons seem somewhat clear).

In fact it could be said that the documentary doesn’t really deal with anything negative at all. We get a sense that Kevin had a difficult time in establishing his career, but it’s mostly glossed over. We are told he got teased as a child but we don’t get to hear what he thought about it.

Clash is an intensely private and shy person who doesn’t really like talking about himself which is awfully ironic because he plays a character who certainly isn’t shy about expressing his feelings and actually teaches kids how to express theirs. We never hear about how or even whether his ethnic background was an issue in his career – one thinks not, but his is the only African-American face we see among the puppeteers in the movie with the exception being an aspiring puppeteer – a young girl from Atlanta whom is looking for mentoring from Kevin the same way Kevin looked to Kermit Love.

The stories are heartwarming at times – enough so I probably rated the film a little bit higher than I would have normally. We see Kevin’s reaction to a dying child wanting to meet Elmo, or Kevin’s reaction to the death of Jim Henson – but there is little flesh added to the story. We hear the how, the who, the when, the what but rarely the why. It took the filmmakers six years to film this and it’s disheartening that I know little more about Kevin Clash than I could have read in his online bio.

On the surface, Kevin is a great subject for a documentary but this isn’t a great documentary. I would have liked to get inside Kevin’s head and heart a little bit more, find out more of the process that brought Elmo from felt and foam into flesh. In that sense, this film could have learned from Henson himself; the characters should be more than just what you see on the surface. They are made real by what animates them. I would have liked to have discovered more about what animates Kevin Clash.

REASONS TO GO: Genuinely heartwarming. A few tugs at the heartstrings.

REASONS TO STAY: The documentary structure asked some questions I wanted answers to late in the film and bounced back and forth in the linear timeline a bit too much.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a drug reference and a couple of mild swear words but okay for most Sesame Street-aged kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bleibtreu provided the voice for Flynn Rider in the German version of Tangled.

HOME OR THEATER: Should probably be seen at home, although if it is playing in a local art house it wouldn’t hurt to give it a bit of support.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and the Quill begins!

New Releases for the Week of December 16, 2011


December 16, 2011

SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS

(Warner Brothers) Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, Jared Harris, Eddie Marsan, Stephen Fry, Rachel McAdams, Kelly Reilly, Geraldine Hudson, Paul Anderson. Directed by Guy Ritchie

Holmes is pitted against his archrival, Professor Moriarty and the stakes couldn’t possibly get higher. When the Crown Prince of Austria is discovered dead, all signs point to suicide – but Holmes sees the signs nobody else can see and deduces that the Prince was in truth murdered and that murder is part of a larger plot, one that would plunge Europe into chaos and indeed change the course of history. Holmes must enlist his stalwart friend Dr. Watson and enlist the help of a gypsy to stop Moriarty’s fiendish plans and save Europe from catastrophe.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Adventure

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, and some drug material)

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked

(20th Century Fox) Jason Lee, David Cross, Jenny Slate, Justin Long. The lovable chipmunks turn what was supposed to be a relaxing cruise into their own brand of fun. The fun ends when they get stranded on a remote island. The furry rodents plot their escape to get back home but then it turns out the island isn’t as deserted as they thought.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Family

Rating: G

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey

(Submarine Deluxe) Kevin Clash, Whoopi Goldberg, Rosie O’Donnell, Frank Oz.  A young man becomes enchanted with Sesame Street and resolves to become a Muppeteer. That this young man is an African American raises all sorts of different obstacles, but this young man will eventually become the voice and the soul of Elmo, arguably the most beloved Muppet of them all and certainly one of the most popular.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: NR

Dragonslayer

(Drag City) Josh “Skreech” Sandoval, Leslie. The winner of Best Documentary from the most recent SXSW Film Festival, Dragonslayer chronicles disaffected youth Josh “Skreech” Sandoval from Fullerton, California. Skreech lives the skate punk ethos, possessing as little as possible, staying high as much as possible and skating whenever possible, finding abandoned swimming pools to swoop and glide in.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: NR

Young Adult

(Paramount) Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson, Patton Oswalt, Elizabeth Reaser. A successful writer of teen literature returns to where she grew up for a class reunion, she plots to reclaim her high school sweetheart. Never mind that he is happily married with a baby on the way, that’s just petty distractions. Along the way she kindles a strange friendship with a misfit who also never got past high school. This reteams director Jason Reitman with writer Diablo Cody who together made Juno.

See the trailer, clips, promos and web-only content here.

For more on the movie this is the website

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Black Comedy

Rating: R (for language and some sexual content)