TV preview

Review of 'Prima Donna,' with Rufus Wainwright, on Sundance

By Hank Stuever
Monday, December 21, 2009

Aiming to be a documentary about a pop star (Rufus Wainwright) who composes and stages a classical opera, "Prima Donna," which airs Monday night on the Sundance Channel, instead winds up being a heartfelt 90-minute guide to the care and feeding of a young genius.

What do you do when your toddler son takes to calling his grandmother's apron his "put-it-on" and sashays around the house wearing it? Or, as an adolescent, casts his sister and cousins in elaborate versions of "Tosca" for the family camcorder? And who comes out of the closet as a teenager and matures into one of the most heartbreaking songwriters of the new century, singing with a voice that ranges from the lowest basso profundo to a soaring tenor?

Happily (though with the requisite melancholia for such a life), this child is Rufus Wainwright, who was born 36 years ago to hippie-era singer/performer Loudon Wainwright III and folk singer Kate McGarrigle. Amid this air of artistic process and semi-fame, young Rufus was given every chance to flourish with real flourish, becoming an indie-pop darling.

"Prima Donna," directed by George Scott, is a compelling profile of How Rufus Became Rufus, yet it wants very much to be a film about the futile attempt to create classical opera from scratch ("An historic art form . . . a museum," soprano Renée Fleming explains, early on) and Wainwright's desire to not have it be regarded as a vanity project. "[The opera community] is not a welcoming world," his father, Loudon, tells the camera. "It won't be, 'Look, the new Bizet is here! Come on in!' "

"But it does fall into the category of grand opera," Wainwright's mother insists, in a separate interview. (Rufus's parents divorced when he was 3; he says his earliest memory is of the U-Haul van that arrived to dissolve his family unit.)

Once it's established that he's not writing the next "Tommy," the film focuses on Wainwright's opera, which is also called "Prima Donna" and is about a fading, Norma Desmond-like soprano (played by Janis Kelly). There was talk of staging it at the Met, which fell through, so the project begins a journey of several months' worth of rehearsals and preparation for the Manchester International Festival in England, where it made its debut in July (to lukewarm reviews).

"Prima Donna" makes a sturdy case that Wainwright was born in the wrong era, an opera nut fighting to establish his bona fides without a proper music education, trying to show his utmost devotion to opera by writing one. "To show that all of -- the cancellation lines, the overpriced tickets, sitting next to stinky people," he says, "that all of that paid off."

The film ably depicts the challenge, if only gliding past the artistic disputes and compromises that necessarily accompany such an undertaking. "I wish we could make ["Prima Donna"] as good as it deserves to be," sighs the opera's director, Daniel Kramer.

Viewers will probably care little about the opera itself, but Wainwright fans can bathe luxuriously in the introspection here and a deeply told biography of the artist. "Prima Donna" is interspersed with home movies (what a finely documented child he was!) and clips from Wainwright's pop performances.

His parents, aunt, sister and many friends speak frankly and admiringly about him, and at times they seem baffled by his artistic choices. Ultimately they are left to bask in his impetuousness and flamboyance. Jorn Weisbrodt, his boyfriend, marvels at how well Wainwright pulled off a 2006 revival, note-for-note, of a legendary 1961 Judy Garland concert at Carnegie Hall -- a gay man doing a gay icon in the gayest possible moment, or "Going into the same house through three different back doors," as Weisbrodt puts it -- without the whole thing collapsing in a shambles of camp.

With just a glancing look at some of the singer's personal difficulties (including rehab in the mid-2000s for drug addiction), "Prima Donna" makes one thing clear: A true diva must be loved into being. If nothing else, Wainwright is loved.

Prima Donna: (90 minutes) airs at 9 p.m. Monday on the Sundance Channel.

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