Wanita Bahtiyar is one hot mess. The Australian honky tonk singer aims to hit the restart button on a stillborn musical career. Her comeback fuels the offbeat, entertaining, and consistently surprising documentary I’m Wanita. The singer, who goes simply by Wanita professionally, explains that her love for country tunes began she first heard Loretta Lynn and Glenn Miller albums twanging through the speakers as a child. She credits Lynn as her true inspiration and the “Coal Miner’s Daughter” singer has obvious influence on Wanita’s style and voice. As director Matthew Walker chronicles Wanita’s quest to breakout in the USA, and infuriating everyone in her entourage while doing so, the singer’s story offers a rollickingly entertaining essay about why some people make it big and others don’t.
I’m Wanita seems to have elements of the typical rags-to-rags portraits from the outset. Wanita explains a troubled childhood with an offbeat, not-entirely-there mother. (Noting, for example, the phonetic spelling of her name.) She shares how music was her escape and continues to be her passion. Walker offers all the rockumentary clichés that a critic usually decries: early performances, still frames of album covers, and flashy headlines. However, the film explains that having the makings of a star doesn’t ensure success. Here’s where the film gets nice and juicy. It spins the formula anew to convey quite strikingly how one can obsess over the recipe success yet still fail to produce a cake despite all the right ingredients.
Wanita recounts how her career flew off the rails quickly. She’s a virulent alcoholic and isn’t embarrassed that she relied on sex work to pay the bills. She’s also autistic and prone to nasty mood swings. Terrible choices define her as much as her soulful voice does and the doc observes as her home operates as a hostel with a revolving door for any troubled soul she picks off the road. If Hollywood loves any cliché more than the troubled musician, it’s the hooker with a heart of gold. Two clichés make an original, however, and the film embraces its subject’s contradictions and dichotomies that suffuse the album with which she hopes to make a comeback.
The film is especially effective as a portrait of the consuming nature of alcoholism. Wanita loves to drink and thinks it aids her performance. Her manager, Gleny Rae Virus, has the patience of a saint, but when Wanita slurs more than she sings in the recording booth, it becomes apparent why she struggles as an artist. Professionalism matters, a point that Wanita grasps, but repeatedly allows to slip through her fingers.
I’m Wanita is proof that a rich imperfect character can fuel a great documentary if the director approaches her with the proper fearlessness. While the flood of safe and sanitized celebrity docs can leave viewers and critics feeling cynical, I’m Wanita is refreshingly original because it’s a heartfelt portrait of an artist who, at best, can aspire to standing twenty feet from stardom. It’s not because she’s a bad singer. Rather, Wanita’s her own worst enemy. Walker’s ability to keep Wanita’s passion and her self-destructiveness in focus side-by-side allows for a frank portrait that should leave the viewer and, one hopes, Wanita happy.
This film offers an unfiltered view of all the facets that stars reared on public relations usually hide. Flawed, sloppy characters feel more real than calculated acts do. Imperfection is the film’s charm. The film finds the space between a musical biopic and musical parody. Part Walk the Line, part Walk Hard, it’s a funny and surprising portrait thanks to Wanita’s openness, pluckiness, and messiness.
In the unlikely event that Wanita ever makes it big, her story could fuel a biopic worthy of further glory—and the film might be better if she doesn’t hit the top. Throughout I’m Wanita, I couldn’t help but think how perfectly Juliette Lewis could inhabit the singer’s tragicomic fallibility. Maybe the biopic treatment could do for Wanita what Loretta Lynn did for Sissy Spacek. Wouldn’t that be something?
I’m Wanita screens at Hot Docs 2021.