Transforming adversity into art: An interview with ‘Behind the Curtain: Todrick Hall’ director Katherine Fairfax Wright

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“Behind the Curtain: Todrick Hall” screened at the Castro Theater on June 17 as part of the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival. A refreshingly unique documentary, “Behind the Curtain” transcends its basic purpose as a biopic of YouTube celebrity and former “American Idol” contestant Todrick Hall. It captures Hall’s essence but goes one step further, addressing the ways in which we overcome obstacles in our daily lives.

While the documentary is based in an exploration of Hall’s artistic journey, it finds its heart in the way Hall engages not only with the struggles he encounters in his private life, but the adversity faced by African American and LGBTQ+ communities. In partnership with director Katherine Fairfax Wright, Hall wanted the documentary to highlight the ways in which these barriers can be sublimated into creative pursuits and the joy that can bring to his diverse audience.

“One thing that just drew me in on a broad scale was just his willingness to engage. Certain things had brought him to a point where he was ready to address some pretty significant aspects of his life — some very intimate moments of his life — and he wanted to do that on a very open stage,” Wright said of Hall.

According to Wright, this level of engagement is not uncommon for Hall, who brought with him a nonstop energy motivated by the pressures he felt to be an active role model for fans. His pain is on full display, but not in its raw form — it is presented in a series of artistic ventures, from songs written by Hall to theatrical music videos. For Wright, the idea that struggles can be transformed into art was critical.

“The process of art-making is in and of itself a bit therapeutic — it’s a way to process your thoughts on things. That’s certainly true for the artist doing it, but I think that for their audience some of that therapeutic value carries over,” Wright explained. “It’s nice to feel some common identity with others, and it also offers some hope that your struggles may not all be for the worse — that good things can come out of them, because you can grow stronger from them.”

This belief allowed Wright to expand her scope and incorporate into the story many of the unforgettable tragedies of the previous year — including the shooting at the Pulse club in Orlando and the stabbing on a train in Portland. Wright saw the ways in which these events impacted Hall and knew that it was critical she address them in the film, but was wary of merely aiming for shock value.

“I was aware of a tendency that I think filmmakers have of inserting, sort of tapping into the drama of scenarios in order to further the drama of their own piece. (…) But it was a very important moment — a life changing moment for Todrick and for some of his cast members — so I needed to get that across to the audience in a way that felt like it belonged in the film,” Wright explained.

Wright’s brand of caution paid off with an emotional execution measured in moments of silence in backstage dressing rooms and in impassioned performances motivated by a touching mixture of pain and hope. This hope is what empowers so many of Hall’s fans, and, according to Wright, drives the mission of film festivals like the one hosted by Frameline.

“I think it’s important for any community to feel like they have their space in the arts and in the public sphere,” said Wright. “It’s just really beautiful for cinema of today telling very different stories from 1927, but that it still has its place, and I think that’s really important.”

Shannon O’Hara is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].