Shut Up & Sing Movie Review
At the height of their success, as the cameras were rolling on a documentary about their current world tour, and George W. Bush was laying out plans to invade Iraq, the Dixie Chicks' lead singer Natalie Maines told a London audience that she was ashamed to be from the same state as her president. It was a statement warmly greeted by the British crowd to which it was made, but one which triggered a career-debilitating controversy back in America (particularly amongst their red-state fan base). This controversy, the band's and its handlers' attempts to control it, and ultimately their acceptance of it, becomes the narrative focus of Kopple and Peck's Shut Up & Sing, which greatly benefits from the drama. Kopple and Peck allow Maines and her girls to turn what might have been a fluff piece on the Dixie Chicks' moving from triumph to triumph into an intriguing study of what happens when a person puts their foot in their mouth and receives a national boot in the bum for doing so.
The "Chicks" -- lead singer Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire -- first believe the storm will blow over. When it only grows, they are forced to confront it. With (and at times, ignoring) the help of their manager, Simon Renshaw, the band heads back to the states to be interviewed by Diane Sawyer and featured on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, naked and branded with such calming catchphrases as "traitors" and "Dixie Sluts." The clouds do not subside. Kopple and Peck follow the girls from 2003 to 2006, as the fortunes of George Bush's Iraq War dramatically turn, the girls record a defiant and ballsy new album, and meet with further disappointment when it, and its supporting tour, are financial and popular failures.
To witness the behind-the-scenes of a major controversy for a major band is fascinating material. Renshaw's wrangling with the press, the government, and the girls is an entertaining foray into media management. Within the band itself there is an admirable solidarity of purpose. Only Maguire, immediately following the London show, suggests that Maines apologize. For the next three years, they are all on the same sin wagon.
Credit goes to the filmmakers too for not canonizing the girls. Although Maguire is a completely winning presence and provides the most emotionally effective moment in the film, and Robison is almost angelic in the moments after she gives birth, Maines is a complicating presence. Her stubbornness seems counterproductive and her refusal to concede anything makes her the most frustrating character. She is truly a lead singer.
The structure of the film proves frustrating at times, as Kopple and Peck eschew linearity for a forward-backward structure that cuts between the recording of a 2006 album and the events of 2003/2004. The scenes skillfully inform each other, but with so little tension between the band members, some tense narrative development might have been a help. Nonetheless, an otherwise unfussy and professional ease with the documentary form -- interviews between action, with few distracting attempts at innovation in between -- suggests a rightful confidence in the story and makes for a reasonably absorbing film.
What makes Shut Up & Sing something more than just The Real World with platinum CDs and a twang is its wide-reaching implications. When Maines' statement is picked up by the American media, the group is vilified and the cameras do not shy away from the ugliness of this reaction to freedom of speech. The question implicitly posed is as to the price of this particularly American freedom. That it is here measured in tickets and CDs sold dramatizes rather than diminishes the power of this question and perhaps the frailty of this freedom.
I demand a recount!