In spite of a provocative trailer and some intriguing media hype, Shut Up & Sing is far less inflammatory than expected, and the actual incident – Natalie Maines' off the cuff remark to London fans on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq
Just so you know, we're on the good side with y'all. We do not want this war, this violence. And we're ashamed that the President of the United Sates is from Texas.
seems more flippant than a radical, calculated, nasty statement, capable of mobilizing a chunk of Americans to mount vicious protests & boycotts, and ignite a few loons to make death threats.
Early into the doc, the group concedes that the biggest surprise for the general public is that three white girls from Texas voiced their disdain for a sitting President from their home state. That contradiction of a popular southern stereotype – ironically epitomized by musician Toby Keith, who later crafted his own anti-Dixie Chicks ode after-the-fact, using ridiculously facile lyrics centered around ‘ass-kicking' – made the once squeaky-clean group pariahs among more conservative country music fans, and unleashed a flood of protests to radio stations, which culminated with an unofficial airplay ban of their music, and their videos from the CMT cable station.
Some fellow Texans felt slighted that Maines would lack discretion while acting as a musical and cultural ambassador in Europe during the group's Top of the World Tour, and one special rube, singled out in the doc, felt free speech was taken too far when utilized outside of the United States, because voicing criticisms beyond national and territorial borders is just plain wrong.
Soon after the London concert, we hear the group's super-supportive manager, Simon Renshaw, telling them how Maine's comments were picked up in the U.S. from British media sources, and how the anger could inject some beneficial spice to the tour – words that prove to be far for prophetic than anyone would've desired.
Interestingly, in 2006, the group regarded the incident as the best thing that could've happened to them, as it forced the musicians to seek a new musical style, write potent songs with unsubtle lyrics, and reassess the necessity of traditional media venues that were restricted by protestors; in the end, the fans still got to hear the group's music, and managed to pack stadiums.
It's a powerful realization for the trio, because it reinforces the weakening power of the TV networks, record labels, and the virility of radio play, since new mediums have allowed anyone to hear or learn about any kind of music.
The Weinstein DVD comes with zero extras, so we have to assume that directors Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck were originally engaged to craft a documentary of the group on the road, but when Maines' comment became the lead story, the doc's focus shifted - somewhat. In spite of the trailer's use of Maines ' profane bon mots, the doc is still a fly-on-the-wall portrait of a group on the road, and the creation of a new album.
After they become group non grata, the doc settles into a minor lull, and we're shown a bit of an industry anomaly: three best friends and their extended family, supportive husbands who join them on the road and/or take care of the kids, and the communicative dynamics between the three women and their manager – a marked contrast to the more flawed families and weirdly silent behaviour of the Pixies in that other superior music doc of 2006, LoudQUIETloud.
Shut Up & Sing switches back into gear when the group begins to record their new album and restart the publicity machine, culminating in the Dixie Chick's return to London for their 2006 tour. Back at the scene of the crime, Maines repeats the sentences that switched on the anger burner, and three years after Bush proclaimed ‘Mission Accomplished,' her words seem more in tune with the increased disapproval in 2006 of the war's disastrous effort to begin a ‘domino' wave of democracy in Middle East.
Directors Kopple and Peck adopt really tight pacing for their film - behind-the-scenes material can quickly become banal and dead weight if allowed to drag – and by shaping the film into a documentary and not a concert film, the music of the Dixie Chicks isn't always up front; pared down to the most meaningful lyrics and instrumental solos, it ensures even haters of country music will find Shut Up & Sing an engaging and accessible film.
Cecilia Peck had previously collaborated with veteran filmmaker Barbara Kopple as producer on Kopple's A Conversation with Gregory Peck, the 1999 documentary that accompanied Universal's Legacy edition of To Kill a Mockingbird. Kopple is best known for Harlan County U.S.A . (1976), and Wild Man Blues (1997).
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan