While many a child has dreamed of becoming a famous singer when they grow up, few hold on to this dream in later life. The path to success can be long and winding, and there is no magic formula for ‘making it’ in the Australian music industry – even if one might consider talent to be a determining factor.
Tamworth-based country singer Wanita Bahtiyar, the subject of Matthew Walker’s 2021 feature documentary I’m Wanita, has no shortage of talent. Proclaiming herself ‘Australia’s queen of honky-tonk’, she is an enigmatic performer with a remarkable voice that sits somewhere between the tenors of Loretta Lynn and Janis Joplin. While Wanita has pursued her dream of becoming a successful country singer since a young age, she remains a relative unknown outside of Australia’s country-music capital, her home of twenty-five years. But this is perhaps the least interesting thing about the flame-haired protagonist. As she proclaims at the start of the film, ‘I’m a binge drinker, cigarette smoker, twice married with one daughter, eighteen years as a prostitute and I love God.’ This statement sets the scene for the film’s exploration of a complex, challenging and ambitious character.
Now aged in her forties and having produced several albums to little fanfare, Wanita is worried that her life choices and at times adversarial behaviour have ruined her chances at ‘making it’. However, furthering her career as a singer remains her strong focus – a quest that is funded through her sex work, and one that is treated with disdain by her husband of seventeen years, Muammer ‘Baba’ Bahtiyar.A title card at the end of the film reveals that Baba passed away during I’m Wanita’s production.
The backstory of this unlikely couple is also remarkable. Wanita travelled to Turkey in her late twenties to participate in a paid marriage scam. But instead of going through with the intended marriage to a man seeking Australian residency, she instead fell in love with his father, Baba, who left his family and homeland for a life with Wanita. Their union damaged Wanita’s relationship with her then-young daughter, from whom she is currently estranged. Walker’s documentary delivers this backstory with the aid of archival photographs in the first thirty minutes, while also offering scenes of the couple’s chaotic contemporary domestic life in Tamworth. Baba is angered by Wanita’s habit of giving her time and money to people whom she deems more vulnerable than herself – the homeless, her neighbours and seemingly random acquaintances – rather than to him. Walker includes a shot of Baba untangling a box of Wanita’s discarded wire coathangers, perhaps a fitting metaphor for the way that he supports his wife. Wanita describes herself as having autistic traits, and declares that she’s ‘living in the wrong era’; while her daughter, Ellymay Sheedy, views her as ‘like a little girl’. Alongside this, testimony of unidentified previous collaborators presented in voiceover portrays her as a volatile and conflicted performer.
The narrative arc that drives the film forward is Wanita’s desire to travel to Nashville to record an album, an act that she hopes will finally bring her the recognition that she deserves. While this expensive dream at first seems out of reach, the surprise financial backing offered by one of her sex-work clients means that the trip becomes a reality. An itinerary – which involves recording sessions in Memphis, New Orleans and, ultimately, Nashville – is drawn up by her friend and manager Gleny Rae Virus, and Wanita sets forth, also accompanied by ‘bagman’ Archer, a talented singer and drifter whom she claims to have ‘found under a bridge’. While the film’s central question revolves around Wanita’s dream of finding success, a secondary quest relates to her desire to meet her idol, Lynn, to whom she writes an impassioned letter before leaving on the trip.
The journey to recording begins with a long-haul plane ride above clouds, with Walker capturing images of a hopeful Wanita tracking the flight path to the US; however, it doesn’t take long for chaos to descend. Gleny Rae candidly expresses her fears and doubts to the camera as Wanita’s excessive drinking and other bad habits mar the first legs of their trip. Rather than preparing for her recording session, the singer takes to the streets in New Orleans and plays music for homeless locals, with whom she drinks and hangs out. ‘I’m a vulnerable person myself,’ explains Wanita, ‘and I want to be around people who won’t judge me.’ Gleny Rae suggests that the generosity in Wanita’s heart ‘clouds her clear thinking’, while the adoring Archer describes her as a ‘drunken Mother Teresa’.
Unsurprisingly, Lynn is not at home when the group visit her country ranch, and Wanita leaves, deflated. A rocky start to the Nashville recording session then follows; but, eventually, Wanita finds her groove and emerges triumphant, being described by Billy Yates – the famed country musician and producer who oversees her recording session – as ‘a true artist’. Later that night, we see her in her element on a Nashville stage, honky-tonking with local band The Time Jumpers. A year or so later, she prepares to launch the album to the public, and the documentary ends, much like it started, with her performing in Tamworth. While the trip to Nashville appears to have brought her some satisfaction, the fame that she seeks has still not arrived.
Following the success of his prize-winning short film about Wanita, 2015’s Heart of the Queen, director and former editor Walker spent several years making this feature-length extension of her story. The documentary’s themes have resonated with audiences at festival screenings from Toronto to Barcelona (and many places in between). As Walker has commented in interview, ‘You don’t need to be a country music lover to enjoy this story at all, you just need to have tried to achieve something.’ He has also astutely suggested that Wanita’s attempts to be her ‘best self’ can be ‘a little bit ugly at times and other times transcendental and hugely uplifting’.Matthew Walker, quoted in Sean Slatter, ‘“People Interpret Her Differently”: Matthew Walker on Bringing I’m Wanita to the World’, IF.com.au, 16 December 2021, <https://if.com.au/people-interpret-her-differently-matthew-walker-on-bringing-im-wanita-to-the-world/>, accessed 17 February 2022.
The documentary is largely observational, and does not seek to pass judgement on its protagonist. A key theme of the film is the fine line between dreams and delusion in the performer’s mind – indeed, one might argue that a certain level of bravado and delusion is necessary to propel any artist into the limelight, given the slim chances of success. This territory has been explored in other music documentaries in the last two decades, including Anvil! The Story of Anvil (Sacha Gervasi, 2008), which follows the similar quest of an ageing Canadian heavy metal group seeking fame and recognition. One might also draw parallels between I’m Wanita and American Movie, Chris Smith’s 1999 documentary about low-budget filmmaker Mark Borchardt’s struggle to complete his dream project. In all of these films, we see talented artists struggling to overcome obstacles that are, at least in part, of their own making. On this subject, Wanita is her own worst critic. Quiet moments show her lucidly questioning her reality in crude terms: ‘I literally don’t cut it. I’m just a fuckwit … I’m having myself on,’ she proclaims.
At other times, Wanita’s bravado takes over, such as in the Sun Studio recording session in Memphis, where she declares, ‘I’m an-infinite-number confident!’ Walker foregrounds this moment and others with large text in capital letters on the screen that draws attention to the protagonist’s emotional state and motivations. Wanita’s oscillation between self-doubt and certainty can be observed throughout the film.
Writing about music industry success, career counsellor Angela Myles Beeching observes the absence of a ‘typical’ career path for musicians in a world that is relationship-driven.Angela Myles Beeching, Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music, Oxford University Press, New York, 2005, p. vi. While testimony presented in the documentary suggests that Wanita’s headstrong and at times confronting behaviour has contributed to her lack of success, one might also consider the impact of the difficulties that she faced as a single mother from an impoverished background. In this sense, Walker’s documentary draws attention to the uphill battle faced by artists from marginalised backgrounds seeking a sustainable career. Wanita was working in a poultry-processing plant before she turned to sex work to fund her music and put her daughter through school, a move that she describes as ‘a calculated executive decision with myself’.
Moreover, a paper on the contemporary music industry published in the International Journal of Music Business Research points out that a variety of factors beyond musical ability impacts upon a musician’s career development, including ‘age, appearance, identity, stylistic choices, and current musical fashions’.Diane Hughes et al., ‘What Constitutes Artist Success in the Australian Music Industries?’, International Journal of Music Business Research, vol. 2, no. 2, October 2013, p. 62. These factors could all be an issue for the talented Wanita, who has taken a different path from more successful Australian country artists such as Beccy Cole or Kasey Chambers, most notably in her ‘old-school’ approach to the genre. As Wanita puts it, ‘The style of music that I want to sing is in the wrong era. It breaks your heart.’ The documentary viewer might ponder whether, like Wanita, the homeless and drifting Archer would have also been a star in another era. Two memorable scenes in the film see him crooning as he strums a guitar (the latter song recorded in a single take at Sun Studio), his exemplary performances providing another example of an unappreciated talent.
Modern-day communication techniques also seem to be problematic for the eccentric Wanita. Beeching suggests that ‘successful musicians tailor-make their own career paths, and these paths most often require an entrepreneurial approach’.Beeching, op. cit., p. vi. On a related note, the International Journal of Music Business Research article observes that this process ‘has been complicated in recent times by the diversification and digitisation of the music industry and music consumption’.Hughes et al., op. cit., p. 62. Wanita is shown negotiating radio and print interviews in her home town and seems to perform regularly, but communication with the wider world via the internet appears to be a problem for her. In one scene at her home, Wanita sits at a distance from Gleny Rae as the latter researches tour details on a laptop computer. Wanita refers to this technological prowess as a form of ‘soft-cockerism’ – and, as such, something she is keen to avoid. In this sense, Wanita really is living ‘in the wrong era’ in terms of her approach to self-promotion and networking.
Visually, I’m Wanita is a treat, with drone photography capturing Tamworth’s small-town charm and the beauty of its agricultural landscape. Wanita’s voiceover, some of which seems to have been recorded over the phone, fosters a sense of intimacy with the performer. Perhaps the most striking sequences of the documentary are performative in nature, such as when Wanita struts along Tamworth’s main street in her white nightie on her return from Nashville, in order to display her increased self-confidence:
If I’m a monumental genius or if I’m a fabricated, delusional fuckwit … irrespective, I’m literally going to walk out on the main street in my white nightie and say, ‘Thank you, world.’ I’m going to trust in myself.
The film’s final sequence, in the style of a music video, follows her from her dressing room at home to a theatrical Tamworth stage. Backed by Gleny Rae and others, Wanita’s voice soars to great heights as she belts out a final track – its quality perhaps leaving the viewer with a sense that her lack of fame really is somewhat of an injustice.
Given all of these issues highlighted above, Wanita’s greatest achievement might just be the fact that she is still engaged in the business of ‘making it’ while others have fallen by the wayside. I’m Wanita is a fun-filled journey, with Walker presenting a playful and thought-provoking portrait of a talented but troubled artist who continues to dream big. With any luck, the documentary will bring Wanita some of the notoriety that she deserves.
|1||A title card at the end of the film reveals that Baba passed away during I’m Wanita’s production.|
|2||Matthew Walker, quoted in Sean Slatter, ‘“People Interpret Her Differently”: Matthew Walker on Bringing I’m Wanita to the World’, IF.com.au, 16 December 2021, <https://if.com.au/people-interpret-her-differently-matthew-walker-on-bringing-im-wanita-to-the-world/>, accessed 17 February 2022.|
|3||Angela Myles Beeching, Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music, Oxford University Press, New York, 2005, p. vi.|
|4||Diane Hughes et al., ‘What Constitutes Artist Success in the Australian Music Industries?’, International Journal of Music Business Research, vol. 2, no. 2, October 2013, p. 62.|
|5||Beeching, op. cit., p. vi.|
|6||Hughes et al., op. cit., p. 62.|