Hot Docs 2021 Review: A Country Singer Arrives in “I’m Wanita”

An exuberant portrait of an artist who has an easier time helping others than herself.

“I’m in the wrong era,” Wanita is apt to say in “I’m Wanita,” a profile of the self-proclaimed Queen of Honky Tonk in Australia, who certainly deserves the crown, but would also find few challengers even in the country music capital down under of Tamworth. Her credentials don’t only entail the years she’s spent modeling her distinctive warbling after Loretta Lynn, but her biography reads like a country song, leaving home at 15 to be discovered on the Outback Talent Quest in 1993 after growing up with an illiterate mother and the thought that Hank Williams was her father. The dream to make it in Nashville always lingered out of her reach, but when director Matthew Walker finds Wanita at 47 looking to record a new album, it’s seemingly now or never, though the filmmaker is careful not to make it feel as if fame is awaiting her across the ocean even if “I’m Wanita” is a celebration of its subject’s indomitable spirit.

With a tone as difficult to wrestle down as Wanita’s manager and often backing bandmate Gleny Rae Virus finds her client, Walker finds the right register to tell the story of the crooner who has made a life for herself after once having to resort to sex work to pay the bills, yet has never had the kind of success she wanted in her music career. Wisely the film never presents the trip to America as the road to riches for Wanita, but instead revealing of the volatility in both her anger and her generosity towards others — she’s apt to stop everything and brighten up the day of those she sees in need — that, as much as sheer luck, has likely thwarted Wanita’s path to stardom when in fact the talent is evident. Gleny Rae may set up an itinerary to span the American south, hitting Memphis and New Orleans en route to Nashville where she will record a new album with George Jones and Charley Pride producer Billy Yates, but inevitably there are detours along the way when she’s easily distracted and always looking forward, prone to neglecting those who have been by her side for years.

Impressively, “I’m Wanita” honors its subject’s tunnel vision by rarely resorting to flashbacks past its opening scenes, instead looking towards the eclectic collection of characters that reflect the unusual life that Wanita has led, whether it’s the increasingly wary Glenny Rae or the carefree guitarist Archer, who like so many first met the singer while he was living on the streets and as Walker captures time and again the kindness she shows to strangers around the world, he jumps back to Australia where Wanita’s estranged daughter Ellymay and her current partner Baba are made to deal with how readily she gives her love, she may spread herself too thin. Although one might expect some such sour notes as a naturally occurring part of a rock doc, “I’m Wanita” hits them differently and show how they all fall away when Wanita’s in front of a mic, perhaps drawing from her experience in the soulfulness of her songs but becoming a refuge from it. Even if it hasn’t taken her to all the places she’s wanted to go, “I’m Wanita” shows how music has offered an escape in a world where there’s so few other places she’s felt safe.

“I’m Wanita” will screen at Hot Docs virtually, geoblocked to Canada, from April 29th through May 9th.