Review: Shut Up & Sing

In the eight years leading up to 2003, the Dixie Chicks were the best-selling musical group in North America. That year they sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl, then embarked on a world tour sponsored in part by Lipton Tea. March, 2003, also marked the invasion of Iraq. In response, Chicks leader singer Natalie Maines announced on stage during a London concert that, “We’re ashamed that the President is from Texas.” That comment ignited a firestorm of controversy that irrevocably altered the course of the Chicks’ career.

Within days the group was blacklisted from almost all of country radio. Maines’s apology was drowned out by right-wing bloggers, columnists, and radio and television personalities complaining about the group’s lack of respect for the Presidency. Drives were organized to demolish Dixie Chicks CDs, and their sales plummeted. Protestors hounded the US leg of the tour. Maines received a death threat that police authorities considered credible.

The uproar mirrored the divisive mood of the country at the outbreak of the war, when dissent was labeled treason. By chance, directors Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck were already filming the Dixie Chicks for a music documentary, and found themselves in the enviable position of capturing an explosive story as it unfolded. An at-times ungainly combination of “making of” profile and current events polemic, Shut Up & Sing offers a vivid, first-hand look at the hatred and hysteria that politics can evoke.

Sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, the founding members of the Chicks, are never less than supportive of Maines, but it’s clear that no one expected the level of vitriol directed at them. One telling scene shows them huddling with manager Simon Renshaw and with Lipton publicists in an attempt at corporate damage control. But Maines insists on taking the offensive. The Chicks appear defiantly nude on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, then endure a hostile interview with Diane Sawyer.

Kopple and Peck intercut the 2003 footage with scenes of the Chicks recording their follow-up album, Taking the Long Way, in 2005. A departure for everyone involved, the album was produced by Rick Rubin, and featured session musicians more familiar with rock than with country. The Chicks’ decision to abandon their country following is the source of some contention, as are the more aggressive lyrics in the new songs. Still, this material is best for hardcore fans, and it doesn’t always fit comfortably with the film’s political elements. Another drawback is the directors’ lack of distance. Everything in the film is filtered through the Chicks’ viewpoint; as a result, some issues aren’t explained fully. Scenes of their home life, including Emily giving birth, can seem weirdly incongruous next to the film’s more pressing matters. Equally troubling is the decision to shuttle back and forth between 2003 and 2005, an attempt to inflate suspense that makes the filmmakers seem too calculating instead.

At its most effective, Shut Up & Sing is a chilling reminder of the limits of free speech, and of how easily dissent can be crushed. History will ultimately vindicate Maines, but it will not restore the Dixie Chicks’ lost opportunities.

Credits

Featuring: The Dixie Chicks (Martie Maguire, Emily Robison, Natalie Maines), Simon Renshaw, Michael Berlind, Cindi Berger, Chad Smith, Jim Scott, Rick Rubin, Lloyd Maines, Gareth Maguire, Charlie Robison, Adrian Pasdar, Clayton Allen, Paul Beane, Toby Keith, Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, Chris Testa.

Credits: Directed by Barbara Kopple, Cecilia Peck. Produced by David Cassidy. Edited by Bob Eisenhardt, Jean Tsien, Aaron Kuhn, Emma Morris. Cinematography by Christine Burrill, Luis Lopez, Seth Gordon, Gary Griffin, Joan Churchill. Sound: Giovanni di Simone, Alan Barker, Jason Blackburn, Peter Miller. Post-production supervisor: Doug O’Conner. Co-producer: Claude Davies. A Weinstein Company presentation of a Cabin Creek Films production.

The Weinstein Company/Color/1.33/93 Mins./Rated R

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