Despite appearing to be one of the more simple embodiments of cinema, the music documentary is a medium that is deceptively hard to get right. It is remarkably difficult to balance both musical content and biography and if one were to misjudge this most precarious equilibrium, any impact that the film potentially has will quickly sour. With this in mind, the new documentary from Chelsea McMullan following transgender musician Rae Spoon is a valiant effort. My Prairie Home is a captivating glimpse into the life and music of the folk-country singer as they return on a Greyhound bus to their Canadian hometown of Calgary, Alberta.
Spoon is gender-neutral, identifying with neither the male nor female category of gender, and has endorsed the pronoun ‘they’ instead of ‘he/she’. McMullan explores this often-sensitive issue well and there are many thought-provoking references to the concept of gender (and its relevance) in modern society. What’s perhaps most interesting about the documentary is the life of Rae Spoon and their views on Religion. Spoon’s parents are evangelical Christians; their father is a mentally ill, abusive deacon and it is interesting to see this mistrust of religion peppered throughout Spoon’s musical work. Given Spoon’s transgenderism, there is an inevitable clash in ideology when it comes to their family. “My family were evangelical Christians. You can’t live in both worlds.” Spoon explains, “It’s like you’re gambling. So I’m going to gamble an eternity in hell to pursue this.” It is clear that Spoon has experienced some incredibly turbulent periods trying to both embrace their authentic identity and escape their parents’ ecclesiastical fanaticism. We gain a small glimpse of this as Spoon returns to Calgary to play a gig, resulting in some very dramatic scenes.
For fans of melancholic folk-country music, or indeed of the music documentary medium, My Prairie Home is a must-watch. The music video sequences are slick, stylized and very inventive. Rae Spoon is effortlessly cool and it’s a joy to watch them perform their pensive, insightful and tender music in some well directed segments. A particular favourite was the accompanying video for the song ‘Love is a Hunter’, which features Spoon stalking through a forest filled with remarkably civilised deer.
Perhaps a criticism of the film, unavoidable though it may be, is that Spoon’s music isn’t instantly residual. Though I’m now well on the way to being a self-confessed disciple of Rae Spoon, it’s taken several listens of the accompanying album to My Prairie Home to really absorb the music. This means that audience members that are new to Spoon and their work could find the music sequences slightly repetitious. On top of this, the film can lose focus in the final third but given the compact running time of just 77 minutes, this is never a significant problem.
Despite these issues, the film is remarkably well shot and the glorious scenes showing the vast expanse of open prairieland that stretches for miles outside the window of the Greyhound bus makes for a rewarding watch and arguably upstages Spoon as the star of the film. Furthermore, the crescendo of the documentary follows Spoon as they explore a glacier that they almost consider their spiritual home, and this results in some extraordinary, almost transcendent footage.
I think what’s most commendable about My Prairie Home is how well McMullan has married the tone of the film to the music of Rae Spoon. The two feel almost synonymous and this gives a very natural feel to the documentary. Spoon is a calm and enlightening narrator and it’s very absorbing to listen to them discuss their life in such intimate detail. My Prairie Home provides ample food for thought and although the film would be enjoyable for any audience, fans of the genre are in for a genuine treat.
My Prairie Home, directed by Chelsea McMullan, is pending UK distribution and a BBFC Certificate. It was screened as part of the BFI Flare Festival at London’s Southbank.