Mardi Gras Film Festival 2022 Review: Invisible ★★★1/2

Country music and heartbreak are natural bedfellows, but T. J. Parsell’s documentary, Invisible (originally titled Invisible: Gay Women in Southern Music when it premiered at Outfest 2021), shows us just how much queer heartache has gone into this enduringly popular genre. From the women in country, folk, and blues who were never given a shot due to their sexuality, to the ones who had it ripped away from them, and the ones who toiled in the background behind some of the biggest names in the business, this is an eye-opening film.

Parsell does an excellent job of drawing us into the history of Nashville and a group of women who wrote the songs, and made the albums, but were never allowed out into the light. A fairly traditionally structured documentary, lacking in cinematic scope, the real stars here are the stories. As the documentary goes on, the stories become increasingly personal, shocking, and upsetting.

Dianne Davidson in Invisible directed by T. J. Parsell. Courtesy of MGFF 2022.

Bonnie Baker, Mary Gauthier, Kye Fleming, Mary Ann Kennedy, Pam Rose—the names behind hits for the likes of Tim McGraw, Garth Brooks, Martina McBride, and Reba McEntire—speak of how they had no choice but to hide their sexuality in order to work. While Dianne Davidson talks of launching her solo singer-songwriter career, only to have doors slammed shut when she wrote a song about her girlfriend, and her struggle to reclaim her musical dreams.

The real gut punches come with the stories of Chely Wright and Cidny Bullens. Wright talks of living in fear as she started to achieve success, and how she lost relationships out of fear of being discovered. Wright’s fear drove her to suicidal thoughts before she decided to come out publicly and faced a backlash from country music radio. While Grammy-nominated Bullens, achieved acclaim and success as a young rockstar in the 70s, sang three tracks on the Grease movie soundtrack, and then retreated from the limelight in the 80s to raise a family. He first spoke publicly about being trans in 2012, and went on to perform his one person show Somewhere Between: Not An Ordinary Life in 2016.

Cidny Bullens in Invisible directed by T. J. Parsell. Courtesy of MGFF 2022.

Invisible really hits its stride when unpacking these tales and in turning its attention to the toxic patriarchy of the Nashville music machine and its constant repression of non-heterosexuality. The film hits hardest when it points the finger directly at country music radio; how the broadcasters control the industry and the way that young female artists have been expected to tolerate sexual advances and harassment.

It’s a shame this point is not explored even further because it’s here that the documentary bares its teeth after letting the rage simmer. It’s clear that none of the interviewees care for the radio system, even those that are still bound to it. A glimmer of hope rises with Davidson who continues to record and release online, outside of the traditional Nashville ecosystem.

Invisible directed by T. J. Parsell. Courtesy of MGFF 2022.

Invisible is a heartbreaking documentary and even though it ends with hope, it is enraging to think of the lives, the stories, and the music that have been lost over the years. As country music lags behind other mainstream forms of music when it comes to LGBTQIA+ representation, we can look to pioneers like these women, and to a new generation of southern singers and songwriters, to finally break the system.

By Chad Armstrong

Invisible: Gay Women in Southern Music is available on demand as part of QueerScreen’s Mardi Gras Film Festival 2022. Click here for details and tickets.

Invisible: Gay Women in Southern Music | Mardi Gras Film Festival 2022

Leave a Reply

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: