Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on February 23, 2007

Directed by Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck/starring Natalie Maines, Emily Robison, Martie Maguire/The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment

A documentary about the country group and the controversy surrounding their anti-war statements on stage.

I’m not a fan of modern country music in general, so before the events that are documented in this film, I was only vaguely aware of the Dixie Chicks. I don’t think I could name more than one of their songs if you put a gun to my head. It’s just not my thing. Up until a few years ago, I had never given them a second thought, despite the fact that they had sold millions of records. I cared about them about as much as your average country fan cares about Bad Religion or Rage Against the Machine.

Then in 2003, something happened that brought them to my attention, as well as the attention of much of the world at large. On the eve of the Iraq war, singer Natalie Maines took the stage in England and proclaimed that they were “ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas”. This provoked a media shitstorm that had two effects: 1) it made me realize that Natalie Maines is really cute (hey, she’s my type, what can I say?); and 2) former fans started protesting their performances and demanding that country radio stop playing their music. In the blink of an eye, the Chicks went from beloved performers who had the #1 country single and album at the time to persona non grata in the world of country music.

Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing basically chronicles this event and its aftermath, as well as the group’s eventual comeback with the pop-influenced Taking the Long Way CD.

At the time of the controversy, the whole thing seemed pretty absurd. On the one hand, I admired Maines for standing up and speaking her mind, especially at a time when her particular opinion was extremely unpopular. The fact that I happen to agree with said opinion (let’s get that out of the way right now, and then put it aside) just made her more sympathetic in my eyes. Plus, she’s really cute, so that helps.

On the other hand, it’s hard not to feel that Maines did a pretty foolish thing when she made that remark, given that her group’s core audience was essentially made up of the kind of ignorant rednecks who voted for Bush. She seriously misjudged the intelligence level of their fans, as well as the general tone of political discourse in America. From a 2007 perspective (in which even Ricky Martin can flip off the President on stage, and it barely makes a ripple), it seems ridiculous and absurd. But this was a time in which even the President’s Chief of Staff advised entertainers to “watch what you say”. Given all the flag-waving that was going on at the time, how did she expect these people to react?

It might have been different if Maines were a rock singer or even a pop star. Let’s face it – country artists are expected to support the status quo, whereas rock and pop artists are expected to challenge the status quo. Obviously I’m generalizing here, but that’s generally how it works. Eddie Vedder can say whatever he wants about the government on stage (and he has), and you don’t see people running around burning their Pearl Jam CDs. You don’t see conservative talk-show pundits accusing Green Day of being “anti-American” because they wrote “American Idiot”. People expect that from rock bands – it’s not news. But when a country artist says something derogatory about the President of the United States, that’s news. The fans have different expectations. It’s like an unspoken agreement – so unspoken that no one let Maines in on it, apparently.

I honestly think that’s the main factor in the outrage surrounding Maines’ statement. It’s not just that she said it and these people don’t agree with it – it’s as if she doesn’t have the right to say it. It’s like she not allowed to disagree with the President or the government. Bill O’Reilly (idiot) is seen in news footage here saying, “she doesn’t know what she’s talking about”. Which, like most of what O’Reilly says, is beside the point. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that’s the truth. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Doesn’t she still have the right to say it? Of course she does, and people have the right to disagree. They even have the right to stop listening to her music because of it (even though one thing has nothing to do with the other). Hell, I used to like Ted Nugent until I found out he’s a bow-hunting neocon whackjob. But I don’t go around burning his records either (of course, since the guy hasn’t recorded anything decent in 30 years, it’s not that hard to avoid him). Nor do I prevent other people from listening to his music or tell radio stations to stop playing him. I may think he’s an idiot, but he has the right to be an idiot! And I have the right to think that he’s an idiot. And you have the right to think I’m an idiot. Why is this so difficult for people?

These are exactly the kind of issues that Shut Up & Sing should be dealing with, but doesn’t for the most part. As a personal chronicle of what the Chicks went through, it’s exemplary. As a film about freedom of speech, however…it’s barely passable. This is strange, since veteran documentarian Kopple (American Dream, Harlan County USA) has never exactly been shy about exploring the political underbelly of America. But she and co-director Peck kind of take it for granted that we agree with Maines and understand why freedom of speech is important (when apparently there are millions of Americans out there who don’t grasp that concept, as the movie shows). We see tons of news footage of people saying moronic things about them, but we’re never given an intelligent argument either for or against the Chicks. At one point, after watching Bush comment on the situation on TV, Maines calls Bush a “dumbfuck”. Which is all well and good. But the movie never makes us understand exactly why he’s a dumbfuck, or why she chose that particular word to describe him in response to what he says.

This is the main problem with the movie as a whole – it deals a little too much with the personal stuff, and not enough about the larger issues surrounding them. It’s as if the Chicks themselves don’t really know how to articulate their views, so they just take it for granted that everyone watching just agrees with them. We understand very well that Maines is against the war. But why is she against the war? We don’t really know. We’re told that the Dixie Chicks “have never been a political band”. So what made her say what she did? What motivated her to speak up at that time, besides just watching the war rev up on CNN? Someone who’s not a politically-minded person isn’t going to have an opinion one way or the other. She obviously does have an opinion, therefore she must be at least slightly political. You don’t address a roomful of people by accident. Where did this come from? How does a country artist wind up having what most people would consider a liberal point of view? Maybe even she doesn’t know. I’m a liberal, and I’m surrounded by rednecks every day, so I can relate. But you have to give us some kind of background for this stuff. Sure, I understand where she’s coming from, but a lot of people obviously don’t, so it would’ve been nice to see her articulate it. This was the perfect platform for Maines to defend herself, and we never see her using it.

What’s really odd about this movie is that it seems to exist in a vacuum in a strange way. If you only had this to go on, you would think that the Iraq war was only important because of how it affected these three women. It’s all about their suffering, their loss, and their eventual triumph. Yes, it’s admirable that they pushed on in spite of everything and re-defined themselves as artists. But, again, aren’t there larger issues to explore here that might be more important than one musical group’s career? Scenes of the Chicks at home, talking to their husbands and playing with their kids, just seem like footage from a CMT puff piece and have nothing to do with anything. Couldn’t Kopple and Peck have spent that time showing us something insightful and informative? How about talking with the families about how the boycotts and death threats affect them? That might have been interesting, at least. Better yet, track down and interview some experts on freedom of speech issues about the reaction the Chicks got and the impact it had on culture as a whole. You know, the kind of stuff you’d see in a documentary.

It’s hard to criticize a movie for not being what it isn’t, rather than being what it is and doing it badly. Most of the time, I wouldn’t do that. But it seems like there was a real opportunity here that was mostly blown. If all you want from a documentary is a superficial, scratch-the-surface treatment of its subject matter, then I highly recommend Shut Up & Sing. I imagine that fans (the ones that are left) will be fascinated by the group’s fall and eventual comeback, especially the behind-the-scenes material of the group and their managers trying to figure out what the hell to do now. I was particularly moved by Maines’ defiance in the face of it all (“fuck country radio, then”) as well as her frustration and disappointment in what used to be her fan base. I only wish she were in a movie that puts her story in perspective, because she found out something few entertainers ever do: who her friends really are. It’s a remarkable story, stuck in what is unfortunately a mediocre film.

The disc they sent me was in full screen (or as they call it, “Standard Version”) and contained no significant extras. Kind of a lame presentation, if you ask me; the film could’ve benefited from a decent widescreen transfer and some informative bonus material. Even if you love the movie, this is a rental at best, not a keeper.

**1/2 2/23/07

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