The 'Wright' stuff

Country music singer-songwriter and out lesbian Chely Wright will serve as a main attraction at this year's Nashville Film Festival. The festival will screen a sneak preview of the feature-length documentary Wish Me Away on April 15 with an encore presentation on April 17.

From the documentary website:

Over a three-year period, award-winning filmmakers Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf followed Chely’s struggle – some of which was recorded on private video diaries – and her unfolding plan to come out publicly. Using interviews with Chely, her family, key players in Nashville and her management team, the film goes deep into Chely’s back story as an established country music star and then forward in various scenes as she prepares to step into the media glare to reveal that she is gay. Finally, the film chronicles the aftermath of that decision in Nashville, her hometown and within the LGBT community.

In an interview with Out & About Newspaper, the filmmakers explain the inspiration behind their new project.

What was the most compelling part of Chely's story to both of you?

Beverly: What stands out the most to me is just the sheer courage that it took to allow us to follow such a painful and intimate process in the way that she did.

Bobbie: And for me, what's the most compelling part of her story, and it's actually shown in the film, is how deep her hiding went. We have archival footage where you actually get to see her trying to pass as a straight person. It's rare to ever have a celebrity talk about to this, and to have the footage on top of that, it's mind-blowing.

Beverly: A lot of people, especially in our business, don't understand initially the difference between coming out here and coming out in Nashville. In the film,  we show how the courage to do that is incredible, and even why she was the first to do so. It's sort of layered: there were so many parts of her story that were telling to us.

Bobbie: The film lays out how it could be so stressful, not so much Nashville as a people, but within the music industry.

What did you learn about Nashville and the music industry specifically during the making of this film?

Beverly: I will say that I really had no idea how complex Nashville is. It's not just the music industry; it's not just these incredibly creative people that live there; it's not just fans and country radio. It's the combination of all of them and how they each play off each other. We came to understand that it's a business and that country music is marketed to a conservative fanbase.

Bobbie: To an extent, the industry is selling to a conservative, working-class population. It's mostly white, working-class and some might even say Christian  people. It's not exclusive, but it's enough that it drives the marketing image. In terms of the gay issue, it felt like Nashville is a closed place for that. It may be opening now as a result of Chely's story. But mostly it's "don't ask, don't tell."

Beverly: Fletcher Foster is one of the co-producers, and we really spent a lot of time talking with him. There are a lot of gay and lesbian working in the industry. But when it comes to the packaging of artists, it's a very different story. What we try to do in this film is to try and understand Chely, but you also have to understand what she was up against. One of the things that Bobbie and I have been thinking about is that we made this film for Chely's audience, for the heartland audience, for the Christian audience..

Bobbie: We made it for all these audiences: heartland, Christian, Nashville, gay. The thing about this film is that it's very fair and thought-provoking without getting heavyhanded or preachy in the way we present it.

Though this film discusses Chely's coming-out process, it's not all dark and depressing either.

Beverly: We wanted to make a positive film about someone choosing to live an authentic life. When you look at who Chely is now, it's beyond our wildest dream what she would accomplish in a year. We believe that this film is not just about being gay, but about people who hide their authentic selves. So I think it's resonating with audiences on that level.

Bobbie: There is a lot of laughter and a lot of tears. It's a very funny film. I don't want to give away much, but it's a private story and how we follow it includes some of her family. But it's very intimate and funny. The music is so entertaining. We had people that don't know who Chely was, and when they watched the film, they go directly to iTunes and they want to know more. The music is a character in this film.

Beverly: The film followed her coming-out process, but it's a much deeper, richer tapestry. We went back to Wellsville (Kansas) where she was born, and then we followed the aftermath.

And this whole filming process was about three years?

Bobbie: Three years ago, yes. She confided in us. We met through mutual friends in the business. She wanted to write a book and we said "No, no, this is a film." It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tell this unfolding story. It's pure gold. For two solid years, we were building trust. It didn't happen overnight; it came out in little bits. The process of following Chely is also the process of discovering stuff about herself.

Beverly; She's a certain kind of person. At her core, she wants to do good in the world. She knew that this film would help people, and especially young people. She felt that it was important that she do it correctly.

Bobbie: It was so important for us to come back to Nashville. Our hope is that, at least in Nashville, it goes beyond Chely and her story.

Beverly: It was great that we have these insiders who spoke with us. We have Clarence Spalding, Tony Brown, Bill Cody and of course Rodney Crowell. We got people that are very well-respected (in the industry). When i was talking about the audiences, the point I was trying to make is that the business will change when their fanbase changes. It won't happen overnight, but it's a transformation that's happening.


Photo by Margo Amala on Unsplash

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