Transgender Musician Rae Spoon Takes On Sundance- by Kristy Choi
Spoon and director Chelsea McMullan share their experience making the documentary My Prairie Home, and its U.S. debut at Sundance.
At Sundance Film Festival’s Music Café last Tuesday, musician Rae Spoon sings on stage, armed with a guitar and laptop. Beginning with acoustic folk ballads, Spoon’s set eventually moves to a more electronic indie-pop-rock sound reminiscent of groups like Metric and Tegan and Sara. To explain the palatable shift, Spoon jokingly prefaces one of their (being transgender, Spoon prefers using gender-neutral pronouns) more experimental songs: “I was really inspired by the folk music in Germany—which is techno.”
Whatever the instrumental backing, Spoon’s music is driven by their stunning voice. Pure and poignant, it spins with ease into a higher register of breathtaking gossamer echoes. Spoon tells me later that they learned to sing as a child through church choir. Spoon’s discovery of their singing and songwriting abilities is a rare gift from their otherwise difficult Pentecostal upbringing in rural, conservative Alberta.
Chelsea McMullan is in the Music Café and bobbing her head to the music with the rest of the audience. A self-proclaimed “art kid in the suburbs,” she can relate to Spoon’s story of not fitting in at home. She has spent the past couple of years working with Spoon to turn their story into a documentary-musical film. Their work is now enjoying international recognition. Just the day before, the pair attended the United States premiere screening of their film My Prairie Home. Until Sundance, the film had only played in Canadian theaters. McMullan and Spoon had no idea that their project would receive such positive reception in their home country, let alone come to the States to compete in the World Cinema Documentary Competition of one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world.
Directed by McMullan, the film captures Spoon’s life on the road as a transgender musician traveling across the Canadian prairies from bus stop to bus stop, stage to stage, motel to motel. Like Spoon, McMullan’s camera is usually on the move. Sweeping shots of the vast Canadian landscape—usually framed by the windows of a Greyhound bus—provide the rhythm of the film, evoking the feeling of transience that drives the film’s meditation on ideas of home and belonging. Much of the dialogue happens on a motel bed or bus seat. With arresting honesty, Spoon speaks about coming out as trans, their father’s mental illness, their younger brother’s death, and other parts of their troubled childhood. Always the backdrop, the prairies are sublime and also desolate—an ever-present reminder of the fraught symbiosis between self-reliance and loneliness, self-growth and self-doubt.
Watching Spoon onstage and on film is an extraordinary experience, an opportunity to get to know someone who has decided to carve out space for themselves in places that do not give them room.
Form follows function in My Prairie Home. To tell the story of a subject that defies gender norms, McMullan has created a film that defies genre and expectations of typical filmmaking. McMullan says herself that she wanted to “make a film that pays tribute” to “Rae being subversive.” The beginning of the film is immediately iconic—a tranquil shot of the prairies that McMullan flipped such that the blue skies are on the bottom of the screen and the plains on the top. It is an appropriate introduction to the rest of the film, which uses everything from music videos to snippets of live shows to travelogue-like moments of reflection to capture the complex relationship between Spoon’s artistic and gender identity.
“I started playing guitar when I was at 11. When I was 12 I started writing songs. That was a departure from being really shy and I found a way to express myself,” Spoon explains. “I liked to play music in front of people. That’s how I started to make friends. For me it was a very nice bridge.”
There is always a degree of defiance in the act of taking up space and Spoon’s style is usually modest. But watching Spoon onstage and on film is an extraordinary experience, an opportunity to get to know someone who has decided to carve out space for themselves in places that do not give them room. At the Sundance Film Festival this past week, it felt easy to sit in a dark movie theater for hours everyday and forget the social and political context of Sundance’s red-state home: Park City, Utah. My Prairie Home and Spoon’s musical set were quick to remind me. McMullan herself noted the irony of screening My Prairie Home in Utah, telling me how “Utah is not so dissimilar to Canada in landscape and attitude”.
“When you’re performing you’re trying to get people’s attention and then being trans and traveling you’re not trying to get people’s attention. There’s definitely behavior modification on my part to flip under the radar when I’m traveling,” Spoon shares. “I don’t want to be in a line on an airplane trying to be like ‘yeah seriously, this is my gender.’ Negotiating that is complicated.”
When Spoon speaks frankly about their atheism and transgender identity onstage and sings about queer desire, not everyone in the audience seems the most comfortable or receptive. For example, in Spoon's song "I Want":
I don’t care if it’s right or wrong.
I just want what I want what I want.
I don’t care if it’s right or wrong.
My first love. My first love. My first love.
In the end we might get caught.
If it’s a ledge then I’m on foot off.
But I don’t give a damn what they say
There’s nothing they can touch that goes between us.
In My Prairie Home, Spoon sings these words while holding hands with their high school girlfriend in a 80s-style prom music video. The scene is a fantasy. It is Spoon’s dreamlike version of a relationship that in real life, their classmates threatened with violence. In a way, the imaginative possibilities of film provide a safety from unaccepting others. But in real life on stage, Spoon is more vulnerable.
At one point in Spoon’s set, they decided to sing a hilariously clever song they wrote with a group of queer youth called the “Queer Trans Prairie Tourism Co.” Spoon shared that they frequently sing this song at sound-checks to “assess the danger.” Designed as a sing-along, Spoon invited the audience to join in and sing these lyrics:
Lesbian, gay, bisexual
Transgender and transsexual
It's better to ask if you don't know
A message from the Queer Trans Prairie Tourism Co.
Mustaches, cowboys and the Stampede
You might not think there's a queer/trans scene
But Brokeback Mountain filmed some scenes
Fifteen miles from Calgary.
The song continues with biting wit. The audience did not exactly scathe in response, but they were certainly less than vigorous in their participation. Some individuals watched awkwardly in silence. There was also a couple that very enthusiastically cheered Spoon on. The moment felt emblematic of Spoon and My Prairie Home, how they proudly and joyfully take up space in unlikely or unwelcoming circumstances.
McMullan and Spoon’s My Prairie Home is a film that quietly demands to be seen. In the persistently patriarchal and heteronormative landscape of filmmaking—which was on full display at this year’s Sundance Film Festival—their work is an admirable and important effort worth following, sharing, and singing along to.