As much as the documentary My Prairie Home paints an innovative and intriguing portrait of Canadian singer-songwriter Rae Spoon, it also conveys a strong sense of the Canadian Prairies. And as much as it is about music, it's also about the quiet that arises from the sense of place as well.
Chelsea McMullan, on the line from Toronto where she's currently based, explains that she perceived these elements in Spoon's music, which provides both the literal and thematic backbone to the biographical narrative.
McMullan says she first found out about Spoon (who, as a transgender person, prefers the pronoun "they") about six years ago. She was making a western-themed National Film Board of Canada film which took place in the B.C. Interior. She was searching for subversive country-folk music for the soundtrack when someone suggested Rae Spoon.
McMullan, thoroughly captivated by Spoon's music, contacted Spoon to ask them to write the score for her film. Their creative collaboration proved fruitful, for as McMullan began to learn more about Spoon, the two began to "organically" come up with the idea of a documentary-musical.
McMullan illustrates Spoon's retelling of their formative years in Calgary with resourceful visuals, such as using toys to act out Spoon's first stadium concert experience (a Christian rally, no less) at the Saddledome.
Yet McMullan also intersperses Spoon's narration with silent shots of the everyday—buildings, houses, the sky—thereby making the setting an integral component of the film.
"It was inspired by Rae's music and the way that they represent space and place in their music. I really tried to use the landscape as a way to sort of represent Rae's kind of psychological state throughout the sort of shifting narrative of Rae moving through the Prairies."
Quiet also permeates the film, both visually and aurally. Lingering shots of deserted streets and fields stretching to the horizon convey a stillness that serves as both a complement and counterpoint to the musical numbers.
McMullan, who hails from Vancouver, found herself fascinated with the prairie environment because it contrasts what she grew up with.
"I really love the Prairies," McMullan says. "You have that big sky, and so there's a peacefulness that comes with that and a sort of meditative state that you just eventually fall into. And I think it is in Rae's music and we tried to absolutely capture that in the film as well."
Spoon also talks about their difficult experiences with their schizophrenic father, and their challenges growing up as a trans person. Music, Spoon says in the film, was a way for them to bridge a gap with people without directly talking to them.
Bridging gaps is something Spoon also does when they relate trans issues to universal themes. "Everyone has problems with gender," Spoon opines at one point in the NFB documentary. Spoon also points out that everyone hides a part of themselves that isn't considered "normal".
Which, of course, invokes the age-old question: what exactly is normal?
That's something that's visually explored by the low-tech yet fantastical musical segments that have everything from Spoon dancing as a hunter accompanied by deer-headed backup dancers to Spoon slowly walking through a diner while strumming a wistful acoustic tune, surrounded by curious onlookers.
McMullan admits that she asked a lot of her subject.
"The things that I made them do, like I don't think any documentary subject would ever agree to do ever," she says. "I don't know why they trusted me to be honest….I made very little compromises in terms of the musical numbers, like almost nothing. So they were definitely pretty good sports, all in all."
But going outside the norm, McMullan recognizes, is something that Spoon is acquainted with.
"The music industry in Canada is so gendered and they're just not playing that game because they can't because that's not who they are," McMullan explains. "On the one hand, it's been an obstacle but on the other hand, it's been part of their creation process and they wouldn't have made the music they have if they hadn't gone this route."
And ultimately, it Spoon's music that McMullan wants people to know about the most.
"I really want people to have more exposure to Rae because I can't not think that if they hear Rae's music that they won't be intrigued…."
My Prairie Home screens at the Vancouver International Film Festival on September 29 (9:15 p.m.) and on October 1 (4 p.m.) at the Rio Theatre.