Chelsea McMullan’s debut feature documentary, My Prairie Home, is a different sort of trip through the Canadian West. It’s a nonfiction portrait of a musician, singer/songwriter Rae Spoon, but it goes beyond the biographical details and the concert footage. Every documentary is a collaboration between filmmaker and subject to some degree, but in this case the combination of talents and ideas is even more obvious. Somewhere between biography and visual album, My Prairie Home fuses McMullan’s skill and Spoon’s musical style into a singularly beautiful journey through the occasionally unfriendly but often breathtaking air of Alberta.
The film is built primarily from a trip across the Prairie, following Spoon as they take Greyhound from gig to gig. There are a number of visual motifs that return time and again along the way, most notably the persistence of indecision in front of public washrooms. Spoon is transgender and uses the pronoun “they.” This is the jumping off point for the film’s narrative, a personal look at the musician’s childhood in Alberta, with devout evangelical parents in a province that is often considered one of the least progressive in Canada.
Yet My Prairie Home is in part an assertion of Spoon’s identity both as a transgender artist and as an Albertan, tapping into a cultural heritage that can at times seem exclusionary. The film begins with a hauntingly pastel musical sequence, set in a bright pink diner. Spoon performs “Cowboy” while wandering along the tables and booths, mostly filled with senior citizens, some of them watching. Looking is a significant visual motif, McMullan assembling the glances and glares of the sometimes empathetic, sometimes judgmental world that observes Spoon in restaurants or bus stations. Spoon’s travels, especially through the American Midwest, have included double-takes and stares from fellow passengers, unsettling and unfamiliar rather than the appreciative and invited attention of a devoted concert audience.
Woven into this narrative are musical sequences, essentially music videos that have been embedded in the larger film. Beyond the first one in the diner, there’s a rendition of “Love Is a Hunter” in the woods aided by deer dressed in suits, a performance in a dinosaur museum in Calgary, and other selections from a “My Prairie Home” album. Perhaps the most moving is “I Will Be a Wall,” helped along by Spoon’s brother on drums. It’s a musical encapsulation of the psychological scars sustained after the abuse of a schizophrenic, deeply religious father that manages to balance the emotional distance of time and the retained devotion of siblings surviving together.
My Prairie Home is a very personal film. And as concert footage presented by McMullan shows, this is in large part because Spoon’s own performances often incorporate dark moments of their past. The musical sequences, and by extension the film, become an assertion of identity that includes all of the difficult moments of the past and the ambiguities of the present. The negotiations of transgender identity that come up in the sterile, regimented way stations of the Greyhound bus line are only the most obvious. Many elements of memory, some warm and some harrowing, come together in this musically charming performance of a life spent on the road.
In the end, the collaboration between McMullan’s images and Spoon’s music reaches a sort of biographical apotheosis on the Athabasca Glacier. Yet before we get there, the journey through the cities of Canada must first become a trip back in time. The goal of this uniquely collaborative film is the articulation of a single human being, one whose music achieves its beauty through its open-heart honesty. McMullan’s careful hand assembles these reflections into a cohesive, flowing documentary with a wisdom that one rarely finds in a debut feature.