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Review: Sundance doc wonderfully shows life, music of transgender singer Rae Spoon

Published January 24, 2014 9:48 am

Sundance • Documentary explores the life and talents of the transgender folk singer.
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Rae Spoon's folk music is simple and beautiful, but full and enveloping like the blue Canadian glacier that runs through the singer's mind when most homesick. Spoon's voice is pure and understated, but capable of much more than is often let on.

That's largely what gives "My Prairie Home," part musical and part documentary making its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, a feeling of vastness and loneliness, beauty and tenderness.

Rae Spoon is a fantastic musician, and these lyrics from one of the best songs on the soundtrack, "Sunday Dress," give a good impression of what the film is about: "I sure wish I was a man, I would never go to church again. My prairie home fits like a Sunday dress."

Born in Calgary in 1982, Spoon was raised in a devout evangelical Christian household, with a father described as an abusive tyrant. Spoon, coming to grips with a transgender identity, found an escape through music, creating a new life touring the country and playing heartfelt folk music.

It's a thoughtfully filmed doc from director Chelsea McMullan. She spends just as much time letting the scene and the music tell the story as Spoon (who prefers that people use the gender-neutral pronouns "they" or "them"). The prairie landscapes of Canada, the long bus trips, the run-down bars, diners and hotel rooms all combine to form a responsive backdrop for a difficult story of childhood pain, and eventually the sense of realizing what it is you've been looking for, even in a place that's "very fundamentalist Christian," as Spoon described it.

"The whole time we were filming the documentary, I was trying to capture this sense that I got from being with Rae all the time," McMullan said, "the way people react to Rae in the prairies that really varies, and also the impact that music has on the people in the prairies, and the relationship and tension between those two things."

The doc is also a musical or even a series of music videos, with Spoon suddenly singing to the camera in artful shots featuring dinosaurs, dancing elk or flashlights under the sheets.

"I think we need to start talking about some of these issues around gender, and maybe adding singing and dancing would make it more fun," McMullan said.

Spoon, who has made 10 albums and performed in Park City as part of the film festival, wrote a set of very personal songs for the film's soundtrack, which was released in August. "I don't think I will ever go back to being less personal in my music," Spoon said.

Spoon hopes the film can help other youths being forced to hide a sexuality that could provoke harm from those around them if discovered.

"I remember watching a documentary on k.d. lang, who is also from Alberta, on TV when I was 14," Spoon recalled. "Seeing a representation of someone with a different sexual orientation definitely helped me think, 'Oh, you're allowed to do that?' " —

Sundance screenings

"My Prairie Home" screens again Friday, Jan. 24, at 8:30 a.m. at Library Center Theatre, Park City; and Saturday, Jan. 25, at 3 p.m. at Holiday Village Cinema 2, Park City.