When Rufus Wainwright was asked to write a closing theme song for “Rebel Hearts,” a documentary about a renegade order of socially activist nuns that opens this weekend, he didn’t require the preamble that virtually any other singer-songwriter would have. It was intergenerationally personal for him, as he was already intimately familiar with the subject matter, thanks to his grandfather’s girlfriend having been part of the order of nuns that got in trouble with the Catholic church in the 1960s, and having heard her story over the years.
The result is “Secret Sister,” a compelling song that evokes both spiritual mysteries and calls to concrete action, and which appears on the “Rebel Hearts” soundtrack along with another original song, Sharon Van Etten’s opening “Conjunction.” Variety has the premiere of an excerpt from Wainwright’s song (below), along with some of the historic and modern footage and animation from director Pedros Kos’ film, which opens in theaters Friday and bows on Discovery Plus two days later. A soundtrack album featuring the two songs and Ariel Marx’s score also arrives Friday.
Although Wainwright is well known for his songs for films over the years, “I’m not sure I’ve done an original song for a documentary, actually,” he tells Variety. “So it’s a personal premiere, of sorts.”
The film’s music supervisor, Tracy McKnight, who also runs Node Records, the label releasing the score, was stricken by “the coincidence happened that Rufus’ grandfather’s girlfriend’s sisters were part of this community, so I didn’t have to pitch it. He was like, ‘I’m in,’ and the song came naturally to him because he was already so connected to the material. As a music supervisor, when does that happen?”
Wainwright says that the woman he considers his step-grandmother “was brought up by those nuns in the ‘60s and went to that school and was really a part of that whole scene. And in fact, two of her sisters became Immaculate Heart nuns, and subsequently were thrown out of the church when the order was discontinued. I had heard stories over the years about that whole era and that whole situation, so I felt like I had to do it.”
He co-produced the track with frequent collaborator Blake Mills, who plays guitar on it, with percussion from the equally renowned Matt Chamberlain. Of “Secret Sister,” he says, “I think on one hand, it’s a meditation and a sort of reflection on the state of the world and what needs to happen, i.e., more kindness, more love. But it’s also very proactive; it’s not stagnant. It’s also a bit of a march, like a meditative march toward the light. So it’s a combination of reflection and action —reflective action.”
And yet, as mantra-like as the song is, isn’t there a bit of tropical flavor to the rhythm? “It’s definitely kind of Brazilian, I think,” he agrees. “It’s almost like a samba.” A samba march, then? “A somber samba march!”
The luscious self-harmonies will be familiar to Wainwright fans. “That’s become a bit of a signature of mine. My latest album, ‘Unfollow the Rules,’ has a lot of harmonies like that on it,” he says. “And I started doing that years ago when I first came to Los Angeles to make my first album, and started to lean on the Brian Wilson philosophy of vocal stacking, so it’s something I’ve practiced for a long time and that people can now somewhat depend on.”
While there’s a theme of sisters doing it for themselves to the new song, Wainwright doesn’t see the reverberations as particularly limited to the specific subject matter at hand. Every school day, Wainwright drives his daughter to school through a broad swath of Los Angeles, where the cityscape gives him time to pause and reflect at length on the recent malaise — even as he drives by the former Immaculate Heart campus on a daily basis and thinks back historically, too. “There is certainly, and especially after the Trump years, this need to kind of be more kind and more altruistic and more caring of the community,” Wainwright says, “because we’ve all been so battered, whether it’s by Trump or the pandemic, or climate change, especially in L.A. with the fires. So we all need to heal. And that’s what nuns are really for, in a lot of ways, to help the world heal.”
For McKnight, the association with Wainwright goes back a long ways. “He actually did a song for one of the first films that I music-supervised, ‘The Myth of Fingerprints,’” in 1997. She got to know him because “I’ve had a deal with Wise Music” — the publisher that also owns her Node label — “and I met Rufus because they publish his operas. And so a year and a half ago, I wound up spending time with him in Europe, and we just got to know each other.” In 2020, prior to the “Rebel Hearts” soundtrack coming together, both Wainwright and Van Etten performed at the Sundance Film Festival music night McKnight’s been programming for the last 18 years.
For the closing soundtrack slot that ended up going to Wainwright, she says, “We knew that we wanted something at the end of the film that would encapsulate the the courage of these women to stand up to the patriarchy of the church, and their incredible spirit. They chose the right path, but it wasn’t the path they’d wanted. They wanted to resolve it, as you see in the film, and were faced with these hard choices. Rufus’ song walks the fine line, celebrating their strength, but still being in a dark place where you have to leave something that you believed in, that you signed up for and that you committed to.
“Those nuns, they’re just amazing ladies. I went to Catholic school, and I didn’t have nuns like that, I’ll just say. Ours were a little more rigid,” McKnight laughs. “So it was nice to have this different experience, as a 13-year veteran of the Catholic school system.”
For the opening number that ended up being Van Etten’s opening “Conjunction,” “We really wanted a female vocal that could embody strength and have this propulsion that was going to carry over that first montage. Sharon watched the film and literally she got back to us within 24 hours and was like, ‘I’m in.’ That’s how you know you just have the right connection, when people are responding to art in a way that they feel like they can contribute something and it’s that instantaneous. We had a lot of conversations with Sharon going back and forth and making sure the song was perfect, as it was teeing off the film. It urgent, and strong, and it creates that energy of like, are you living your life? I think it shows that you’re about to embark on a journey of very strong women. Something unexpected.”
The film has a lot of needle drops setting the period as well as offering thematic resonance, from Nina Simone to Patti Smith to First Aid Kit. Those will be included in a Spotify playlist for the film. The soundtrack album itself will focus on Ariel Marx’s score, along with the Wainwright and Van Etten songs.
When McKnight joined the Wise Music publishing house, she got a big bonus in also being given the reins of their Node label, which at that point had released just a couple of albums, and has turned it into a real force in the soundtrack world. “I’m really just kind of curating, and making this beautiful boutique, where we’re doing maybe 10 to 14 soundtracks a year.
“We have a fund to help independent films with financing when they need help,” McKnight continues. “In that independent film world, I’m watching a lot of that deal-making process. So it’s really nice to have a label and to be able to curate things, and also to give composers support and making sure that we have social media giving the albums a real chance and a platform and making composers rock stars, you know — giving them the promotion that they need. I know how hard it is to create a score. And when (a film) goes out, it’s the songs get a lot of attention, and that’s great. because they’re a very important part of storytelling, but score is equally important, and it’s really nice to be able to champion composers when I can.”