Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/17/06 00:52:55

"These Chicks Don't Run"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

You probably remember the comment that Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines made from the stage during a 2003 London concert about how she was ashamed that George W. Bush was from her home state of Texas. Even if you don’t remember the actual comment, you doubtlessly remember the reaction that the comment inspired when the American press got a hold of it–outraged country music fans decried the group as traitors and organized CD burnings (not the good kind) while country music radio stations essentially blacklisted them from the airwaves. However, what kind of got lost in all of the controversy was that it was not just a random, off-the-cuff comment that Maines made in order to get attention from herself. At the time, America had literally just begun its pointless and fruitless invasion of Iraq and Maines was merely verbalizing a belief that many people around the world were feeling at the time. This is just one of the interesting little tidbits that are uncovered in “Shut Up And Sing,” a angry and often stirring new documentary that looks at the price one often is forced to pay for speaking their mind and asking whether it is worth it in the end.

After reminding us of a time when the Dixie Chicks were actually America’s sweethearts–singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl and selling millions of albums on the strength of such hits as “Goodbye Earl,” “Wide Open Spaces” and “Ready to Run”–“Shut Up and Sing” gives us an actual look of the moment when Maines made her comment during a show that kicked off their “Top of the World” tour and then proceeds to show us the astonishing fallout that would come as a result. Co-directors Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck take a two-tiered approach to the material. In one, the focus on the immediate impact of the remark as a good portion of the largely conservative country music market responds by questioning their patriotism, boycotting their concerts and pulling their then-current CD, “Home,” from the airwaves, even after Maines offers a half-hearted apology in an effort to stem the controversy. In the other, two years after the events, Maines and fellow Chicks Martie Maguire and Emily Robison regroup to work on material for their next album and find themselves confronting the question of whether they stick with a more traditional country sound in order to reconnect with a fan base or if they should take the opportunity to abandon it in favor of the more folk-rock sound that they began drifting towards with their previous album. Making the decision even more complicated is that they are uncertain what, if any, fan base they may still have as the furor over the remarks refuses to die down, mostly because of Maines and her cheerfully unrepentant attitude.

Although the politically-related material in “Shut Up and Sing” has been getting the lion’s share of the publicity (including an often-mentioned bit in which Maines, after listening to a fairly condescending remark made by President Bush about the whole affair, refers to him as a “dumb fuck”), the most interesting element in the film revolves around the Chicks, along with producer Rick Rubin, working on material for the new album, “Taking the Long Way,” that can’t help but comment upon the trials of the previous two years. Although it may not have been intended as such, these scenes provide one of the most penetrating glances at the creative process I have ever seen as they struggle with trying to decide at what point a “personal” song becomes to personal, what their new sound is going to encompass and what part Maguire and Robison are to play in a group that they formed themselves (Maines was a replacement for an earlier singer) and which is quietly threatening to devolve into a sideshow with Maines in the center ring and the others cast to the side.

Kopple and Peck capture that stuff brilliantly and also do an effective job of pointing out the ridiculousness of the various protests simply by letting their objectors hang themselves with their own alternately silly and scary (there is at least one death threat) words and deed. In other aspects, however, the film does fail to pursue some interesting angles to the story. One of the most loathsome aspects of contemporary radio today is how more and more stations are falling under the regulations of a handful of powerful nationwide networks and it is evident that these networks were essentially blacklisting the group from the airwaves in order to curry favor with the government that, of course, is in charge of their broadcast licenses. An entire movie could be made from this troubling subject but it rates only a brief mention before disappearing–frankly, I would have preferred that material over the scenes of the women bonding with their kids on-camera to remind us that they are wives and mothers in moments that look as unforced and natural as the stuff you see in a political commercial. I also wish that the filmmakers had explored the irony that while the group lost a number of fans simply because of their perceived political ideology, they wound up cultivating a new fan base because of their perceived political ideology. (While ticket sales for the group have faltered in the South, they have picked up considerable in blue state locales like Chicago where country music has never really been the rage.)

Those quibbles aside, “Shut Up and Sing” is still a superior film that is an unflinching document of the weirdness that can happen when the worlds of politics and popular culture collide. Of course, if you are one of those who still feels that Maines is a traitor simply for speaking her mind, I doubt very much that there is anything in the film that will change your mind towards them. (And if any of you plan on writing in to inform me that I am some kind of unpatriotic monster because I liked the film, be known that I plan on posting any surly notes I receive on the site–so please double-check your spelling.) For the rest of us, “Shut Up and Sing” is a funny and troubling tribute to the joys of free speech and the importance of sticking to one’s personal beliefs even when there is enormous pressure to do otherwise. Oh yeah, there’s a lot of great music as well.

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