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.
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.