The excellent documentary 'Becoming Chaz' is an engaging and educational look at one person's journey to make his outsides match his inside. The public eye has been on Chaz (née Chastity) Bono since he was a blond moppet on his parents' variety show, 'The Sonny and Cher Show.' Although Chaz officially came out as a lesbian in '95, it took him much longer to come to terms with his transgender identity. Despite his shyness and a lifetime of discomfort (to say the least) in his own body, Chaz opens up his life, his home and his history for this warm, moving and funny documentary.
Directors and executive producers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato ('The Eyes of Tammy Faye,' 'Party Monster,' 'Inside Deep Throat') have done an excellent job with the massive amount of information, footage and photos at their disposal. The documentary juxtaposes everyday shots of Chaz and his partner Jennifer Elia with black-and-white studio-set interviews with Jennifer and Chaz, scenes from the Sonny and Cher show and interviews with family and friends to create a fully three-dimensional, unflinching portrait of Chaz's transition. Chaz and Jennifer talk openly about Chaz's disconnection from his breasts, noting they were off-limits during sex or even cuddling. Jennifer grapples openly with the change in her lover and his "testosterone energy" and "manness." We're even treated to the intimacy of Chaz post-surgery and the eventual unveiling of his new chest and all the after-care that entails. From Chaz's struggle with an addiction to painkillers after his girlfriend Joan's death to the couple's everyday squabbles, nothing is too sacred.
It helps that even though Chaz hated his time in the spotlight as a child, he is familiar with how Hollywood works and how, in turn, to work it. His coming out is planned; he has a publicist and interviews and photo shoots planned. Even though some media outlets use Chaz's transition as punch line, there's no doubt that our familiarity with Chaz and his family will make his story more easily accessible for some viewers. Coming out as trans has helped Chaz find the self-confidence that, in turn, makes him a great advocate; there's no doubt that his parents' star power wore off on him, now that he's finally comfortable enough to let it shine.
One of the most poignant segments of the documentary is the interview with Cher, who is openly uncomfortable with Chaz's transition and admits to being afraid to see him post-surgery. Cher often uses the pronoun "she" to refer to Chaz and uses Chaz's childhood nickname in place of Chaz or even Chastity. It humanizes the larger-than-life singer and actress, even as it shows how far even those we look to as icons and advocates have to go. (Cher and Chaz finally appear together at the end as Chaz, Jennifer and Cher attend the premiere of 'Burlesque.' Cher was reportedly not at the Sundance premiere of 'Becoming Chaz.')
'Becoming Chaz' covers an incredible amount of ground, almost at the risk of overloading viewers with information that they might not otherwise be familiar with. It's like a crash course in female-to-male transgenderism, from briefs interviews with Chaz's doctors, who are prominent in their areas of expertise, to Chaz's journey to the Southern Comfort Conference for transpeople, where he attends a short lecture on the options for and limitations of FTM bottom surgery. This shouldn't be read as a strike against the documentary; if anything, it makes the doc a perfect fit for its home on Oprah's new OWN network. As one attendee of Southern Comfort notes, his own grandmother had to assure his mother that what her child was going through was normal because the grandmother had seen it on Jerry Springer. Although this information is still only the tip of the iceberg, it's a great start for most audiences who probably won't notice or understand at first why Chaz finds it upsetting that Cher has trouble keeping her pronouns straight.