If you've been living under a rock for the past three years, let me catch you up: in 2003, the musical group The Dixie Chicks said something on a London stage that shot off a firestorm of controversy across America. The comment, a lament from lead singer Natalie Maines on how she shares the same home state as George W. Bush, was clearly made in jest, but like a particularly insane game of Telephone, it morphed from a random joke into an attack not only on the American President, but the country itself, newly engaged at the time in the Iraq War.
"Shut Up & Sing" is the visual documentation of the time in which the Chicks watched their country, fans, and media turn on them at the height of their fame. Directed by noted documentarian Barbara Kopple (with Cecilia Peck), "Sing" welcomes the viewer into the typhoon of controversy that took the Chicks from darlings of the music charts to having their each and every move severely criticized.
However, "Sing" isn't a 90 minute rant on how the Bush comment ruined everything for the Chicks. Kopple starts off the movie with a recap (including footage of the incident) of the situation, and the immediate professional fallout that followed. We meet Maines, Martie Maguire, and Emily Robison as three musicians unprepared for this war on free speech, but ready to protect themselves from the swarm of attention that nearly suffocated them. The media saturation of the comment is shockingly quick, and it, fueled by a mixture of political opportunists, genuinely upset country music fans, and publicity-seeking websites, takes over the Chicks' world in a very profound way. They go from industry heavyweights to pariahs seemingly overnight.
Truthfully, I hold country music in the same company as a root canal, but I've always been taken by the musical virtuosity of the Chicks, and the pitch-perfect, diamond voice of Maines – simply one of the best singers in the business today. Once the filmmakers drain the speculation and ire out of the Bush comment, "Sing" relaxes into a documentary on the musical creative process and the fears the Chicks share as they try to mount a new album in the face of unbearable expectations and media demands.
The cameras capture the Chicks in startlingly natural ways, as they politely banter about musical direction, curse in frustration, and enjoy their lives as mothers and wives. The point is to humanize these iconic ladies, and Kopple succeeds, hand-holding the audience through very tense times (including death threats), but also observing the personal positivity and sonic joy that emits from these ladies in ways that can only come from the hardest working bands.
Bouncing back and forth between 2003 and 2006, it's interesting to watch these women go from disbelief to acceptance to defiance as the whole saga plays out. The Chicks rely on the music to express themselves, and to watch the songwriting and recording process is almost as fascinating as the political fireworks. Some of the more treasured moments of the picture come from an appearance by legendary producer Rick Rubin as he gives feedback to selections from the work-in-progress CD, and the general fears of soft-spoken Maguire that her voice is not being heard on the songs as the band flirts with leaving their country roots behind for a new audience.
"Sing" recaps the boycott of the Chicks' music by country radio, the absurd demonstrations of CD destruction by subliterate "fans," the even more bizarre posturing of country singer Toby Keith (who uses the Chicks' controversy to further his own career), and the contemptible rants of political talk show hosts and pundits, who clearly miss the irony when they respond emphatically with outrage to Maines's comment with a flurry of their own misogynistic, threatening, and hateful words.
Kopple doesn't pass on the chance to illustrate the change in the political sea as the Iraq war drones on, gradually layering on footage of a war-ready nation in 2003 eventually reduced to a sullen cry in 2006. Kopple wisely lets the news clips do all the talking as the nation grows weary of the Chicks when larger national issues arise. However, the damage is done, and while the new album is a rousing success for the Dixie Chicks, the tour suffers from lack of interest in America, leaving them at a crossroads where their careers will take them next.
I'm not convinced that "Shut Up & Sing" is the brutal evocation of the first amendment issue that perhaps Kopple, Peck, and the Chicks were aiming for, but the film does bring up a larger issue of hypocrisy that will forever be chained to the debate. The picture is more assured as a travelogue of a band blindsided by controversy and their laborious rise back to worldwide success. For that, the film is a wonderful and intelligent creation and certainly a must see for any Chicks fan that lost the faith over such an absurd and misunderstood moment of personal expression.