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The unvarnished truth behind ‘Prima Donna’

“Rufus Wainwright: Prima Donna’’ chronicles the early life of the singer-songwriter and the making of his first opera. “Rufus Wainwright: Prima Donna’’ chronicles the early life of the singer-songwriter and the making of his first opera.
By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / December 21, 2009

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‘Rufus Wainwright: Prima Donna’’ is being pitched as a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the singer-songwriter’s first opera, which premiered last summer at the Manchester International Festival. As promised, the documentary includes much footage of laborious scoring sessions and intense workshops that illuminate the steep learning curve for a pop artist stepping into the opera world. Talking heads are blessedly scarce and likewise credible: Viewers who know something about Wainwright’s family won’t be surprised to learn that his father, musician Loudon Wainwright III, is as averse to fawning as is the soprano Renee Fleming.

But the seeds for “Prima Donna’’ were sown decades earlier, by a pimply kid staging “Tosca’’ for Super 8 posterity with his sister Martha and their cousins, and it’s the beautifully crafted explication of Wainwright’s early life that makes this film such a heartfelt portrait of the artist. It opens with a shot of Wainwright preparing to attend the opera’s opening, in Manchester, England, dressed as Verdi. “What I want to do is I want to present myself,’’ he says. Ninety minutes later, we understand that it was ever thus.

While the other kids at his tony boarding school were singing Bob Marley in the quad, young Rufus was parading around campus as Salome. “He was a flamboyant toddler,’’ notes Loudon with an uneasy grin. Still more compelling than Wainwright’s musical gifts (full disclosure: I am a longtime fan) is how well he has always known himself, and how organic - if not altogether successful, judging by reviews of “Prima Donna’’ - is his foray into opera. We see only snippets of the finished production, but enough to appreciate the leap Wainwright made to move from three-minute pop dramas to a full-length score.

Scenes chronicling the creative process, grainy home movies, smart interviews, and vivid concert footage are assembled in revealing montage. One evocative stretch features Wainwright musing on his earliest memory - driving away from the family home following his parents’ bitter divorce - followed by a clip of the female protagonist in “Prima Donna’’ in a teary embrace with a youngster who is the spitting image of teenage Rufus. Next comes one of many shots of Wainwright in intimate conversation with his mother and closest friend, folk musician Kate McGarrigle.

Not much is whitewashed - including Wainwright’s crystal meth-and-sex binges and his battle with “Prima Donna’’ director Daniel Kramer for the soul of the show - except for the opera’s aborted beginnings as a commission from the Metropolitan Opera. The Met withdrew, the story goes, because general manager Peter Gelb wanted to foster works for American audiences while Wainwright, who grew up bilingual in Montreal, insisted on writing in French.

“Opera in English doesn’t sound good,’’ Wainwright mutters at one point. Lush, melodious French does indeed seem to suit the artist’s wildly ambitious project. And far be it for Wainwright to dim his dreams or cater to demands. After all, he explains, the title character in “Prima Donna’’ is a composite of real people, and the first name on the list is his own.

RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: Prima Donna
On: Sundance Channel
Time: Tonight at 9

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