In its intimate and revealing look at one of the more bewildering tempests in the annals of recent pop culture, Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing touches on many things, from voicing dissent in a free society to the fragile relationship between celebrities and their fans. Most of all, however, this insightful and entertaining documentary is about plain ol' mass hysteria.
Acclaimed documentary filmmakers Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, USA) and Cecilia Peck were granted amazingly candid access to the Dixie Chicks and their fall from country-radio grace. In the spring of 2003, the eyes of the world were trained on the imminent U.S. invasion of Iraq when, on March 10, the Dixie Chicks took the stage at Shepherd's Bush in London. Earlier that day, thousands of anti-war protesters had taken to the London streets in one of the largest demonstrations that city had ever witnessed. Amid that charged environment, the Chicks' brassy lead singer, Natalie Maines, adlibbed to the British audience: "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 States is from Texas."
The comment, breathlessly reported by the British press, spurred a furious backlash that even now has not fully vanished. Up to that point, Texas' Dixie Chicks -- Maines, sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robinson -- had steered clear of controversy. But that changed, as Maines' off-the-cuff remarks were seized upon by right-wing groups and mainstream country music fans as treasonous. Suddenly the Dixie Chicks were without country. Sales of their disc plummeted, while those that had been purchased were being burned. Country music radio stations blacklisted the Chicks from airplay. The band was bashed by conservative pundits such as Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Pat Buchanan. And there were death threats.
The movie offers viewers a fascinating front-row seat to the entire saga. Initially, the Chicks failed to appreciate the magnitude of the anger they had sparked. Maines, who was supported by Maguire and Robinson, refused to apologize, but she tried finessing her remarks by stressing that she supported American troops. But their vilification continued, unabated.
No matter how the news media might have portrayed the controversy at the time, it seems evident that the Dixie Chicks would not have been so thoroughly excoriated had they not been Nashville mainstays. Certainly, the blistering reaction to Natalie Maines' remarks stirred up the stereotype of country music fans as flag-wavin' jingoists who aren't especially tolerant of dissenting viewpoints.
Rock stars, especially male rocks stars, are held to a different standard. Around the time that country fans were spitting on Dixie Chicks posters, Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder drew minor flack for stomping on a George W. Bush mask in concert. Still, his actions were a blip on the radar of pop culture when compared to the Dixie Chicks fiasco. Rock 'n' roll stars dissing a wartime president was one thing; that was to be expected from those punks. But pretty C&W gals who harmonized and played fiddles were supposed to, well, shut up and sing.
As Shut Up & Sing makes clear without sermonizing, the brouhaha had disturbing things to say about the notion of political dissent during wartime. A mere four years after Maines bashed Bush, polls indicate that an overwhelming majority of Americans oppose the Iraq War. And yet the residue of anti-Dixie Chicks mania remains, even as the group's 2006 album, Taking the Long Way, recently earned a slew of Grammy wins. Perhaps the final irony is that Maines -- after being so thoroughly skewered for speaking her mind -- inadvertently gave the Dixie Chicks more freedom than they otherwise would have been afforded. Abandoned by Nashville, the band discovered the rejuvenating power of having no expectations placed upon them. In essence, they had no alternative but to reinvent themselves.
But Shut Up & Sing is far from a downer. Taking its cue from the Dixie Chicks' refusal to back down, the film crackles with energy, wit and the joy of principled defiance. Moreover, it is also an intriguing window into the creative process, as the Dixie Chicks funneled that controversy into some of their most compelling music to date.
Shot on video and captured in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing sacrifices a certain amount of visual polish in favor of on-the-fly filmmaking. The print transfer is fine, but images are occasionally soft.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track isn't as immersive as one would like, but the sound is crisp, sharp and full.
Disappointingly, the barebones DVD includes only a theatrical trailer. At the very least, the Weinstein Company would have done well to tack on the "Not Ready to Make Nice" music video from Taking the Long Way.
Dixie Chicks: Shut Up & Sing is an astonishing documentary -- passionate, energetic, provocative, frustrating and funny. Filmmakers Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck happened to be at the right place at the right time, but then they had the good sense to get out of the way and capture one of the more bizarre controversies to emerge from popular culture.