It all started, naturally, in the Hamptons. As they sat by her pool in Amagansett two summers ago, watching their children play, Sarah Jessica Parker told Rufus Wainwright about the new movie she was producing and starring in, an updated take on Cléo from 5 to 7, a 1962 French film about a singer who’s awaiting a potentially devastating medical diagnosis. Parker would play the chanteuse in this new version, Here and Now (in theaters, on demand and digital November 9th), which costars Common as her longtime manager, Simon Baker (as her ex) and Renée Zellweger (as an old friend). But the film needed at least one original song. “Immediately we thought of Rufus,” Parker says. Still, though they’ve been friends for more than a decade, she “wondered if that would be dreaming simply too big.”
Clearly, there’s no such thing.
Not long after that initial conversation, inspiration struck Wainwright. His daughter Viva, six years old at the time, announced one day: “Daddy, I just want to unfollow the rules.” Instantly, Wainwright had a title. The rest of the lyrics fell fast into place, centered on the idea that our time on earth is fleeting.
“Having a child, you start to see life go by at a much quicker pace,” Wainwright says. “And, you know, my mother passed away from cancer. So between that and having a small kid and reading the script, the essence of how precious moments are and how you really have to savor every possible second correlated with the song.”
With lines like “I’m no Hercules/And this is Herculean/Tomorrow I will just be feeling the pain,” the song is appropriately Wainwright-ian, which is to say: dripping in both high-minded intellect and sweeping sentiment. As Parker puts it, “Rufus likes feeling things deeply. I have a friend who always says, ‘I like to push on the bruise,’ and I think Rufus likes to push on the bruise. It’s that little bit of agony that we want. So I feel like [the song] gave us that, but it was also otherworldly and joyful. It didn’t have to be a song about this devastating news, but in some ways it was reflective of a life experience. So it took care of a multitude of things.”
Though Parker got her start on Broadway at age 11 (even starring in a 1979 production of Annie), it’s been a long time she’s had a role that requires singing. To hone her character Vivienne’s performance, she first visited Wainwright in his studio, where he and their mutual friend, the composer and songwriter Scott Wittman, worked to tweak the melody and the arrangement to better fit her voice. (In what he calls “a confession of my treacherous behavior,” Wainwright notes that he tends to write for his own voice, which “has an insane range, really crazy, and it’s kind of impossible for any other singer to do.”) As she practiced in the weeks leading up to filming, Parker also tailored her vocal styling to director Fabien Constant’s chief note: the performance should be quiet and pulled back.
The result is an interpretation that Wainwright applauds for being “intimate and more interior as opposed to this big, belting number, which it also can be.” Wainwright has been busy: He recently released “Sword of Damocles” following the premiere of his second opera, Hadrian, in Toronto last month. His “All These Poses” Anniversary Tour launches November 9th in Los Angeles, and the Rufus and Martha Wainwright Christmas show, “Noel Nights,” returns to New York City after a four-year hiatus, on December 16th. Amid it all, “Unfollow the Rules” made an impact. Wainwright tells Rolling Stone he’s recording his own version for his next album, due some time next year.
As for her time singing, Parker calls the scene “the lightest moment in the film,” one that allows Vivienne to stand confidently on stage at New York’s legendary Birdland jazz club, soaking in the adoration of fans. “It’s not a mournful song, it’s not a dirge,” Parker says. “Vivienne is doing what she most loves to do and being given the recognition that has eluded her. It is an enormously happy moment. It’s a magnificent song.”