Judge Daniel MacDonald is often told to shut up, but rarely to sing, which is probably for the best.
Freedom of speech is fine, as long as you don't do it in public.
With Shut Up & Sing, directors Barbara Kopple (Havoc) and Cecilia Peck have created a masterfully-structured, compelling and provocative look at both the behind-the-scenes machinations of the top selling female band of all time and the changing definition of free speech in America. Like the best stories, it offers broad insight on a macro level by exploring a very personal story in nearly microscopic detail. A gripping tale that'll get your blood up, this is one to watch regardless of what you think of the Dixie Chicks and their political views.
Facts of the Case
"We're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas."—Natalie Maines, London, 2003
Those few words, spoken off-the-cuff during a concert by Dixie Chicks lead singer Maines, single-handedly managed to turn the band from American darlings singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl to the victims of a shockingly personal type of venom.
The reaction to the Chicks' brief criticism of American President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq in 2003 snowballed quickly, from the initial campaign by right-wing group Free Republic, to radio stations pulling their current single—despite it being one of the top songs in the country—and placing garbage cans outside their stations where disgruntled, self-righteous fans could dispose of smashed CDs. Then came the death threat.
Shut Up & Sing chronicles the fall and rise of a band that never intended to be political poster children, but didn't shy away from the attention when it was thrust upon them.
The opening scene of Shut Up & Sing perfectly captures the tone and subject matter of the film to follow. In it, Emily Robison is working on a slide guitar line as a child plays amongst guitars, the Chicks and their band casually rehearsing, until someone starts reading heavy-handed criticism and insults from the blog "rightwingsparkle.com." It's a clear example of the new reality for the Dixie Chicks, that what was once just about the music is now blended with personal politics, and they can never go back.
What's especially remarkable is just how little the Chicks had to do to raise the ire of so much of America. They certainly weren't the first band to criticize Bush, and the comment itself was the conclusion of a rather patriotic statement on a tense night before the bombs started falling in Iraq. Yet they instantly became the target of a vitriolic campaign by fellow country singer Toby Keith, who used the Chicks' troubles to forward his own career, and misogynistic sentiment such as Bill O'Reilly's gem, "These are callow, foolish women who deserve to be slapped around." By the time they appeared nude on the cover of Entertainment Weekly with labels written on their skin like "Saddam's Angels," "Dixie Sluts," and "Traitors," they had no choice but to take the title of free speech advocates that was being placed on them, despite never intending to politicize their careers.
The story is inherently dramatic on its own, filled with ironies (the Chicks were on the "Top of the World" tour when the offending comment was made) and emotion, so it's not especially surprising that a top-notch documentary was forged from it, but the structure constructed by Kopple and Peck takes things to a higher level. The narrative jumps around between 2003, when things went sour, and 2006 as their multiple-Grammy winning album Taking the Long Way is released. It allows us to see for ourselves the events that shaped the pointed lyrics and new musical direction on the record, and paces the most dramatic events throughout the film's running time. For example, we don't see singer Natalie Maines receive her chilling death threat, and the fallout of that threat, until more than half way through the picture, even though I suspect it was early in the ordeal that the letter was received. By this point, we are somewhat desensitized to the insults being thrown the Chicks' way, so this escalation acts as a timely raising of the dramatic stakes. And when Martie Maguire speaks about her bandmate Maines's guilt for what her comments did to their career, it's the emotional peak of the film and is wisely saved for the picture's end.
The Dixie Chicks themselves—Maines, Robinson, and her sister Maguire—are likeable, open subjects for whom you want to root as an audience. Maines, the self-confessed big mouth, is a firecracker of impulsive outbursts, seeming to say whatever comes to her mind with little or no filtering, yet her bandmates don't seem embarrassed or unsupportive. That said, occasionally a slight undercurrent of discontent from Robinson and Maguire is detectable. When the controversy first hits, Robinson suggests an immediate apology and statement on their website that the comment was meant as a joke, an idea that is categorically rejected. And Maguire hints at jealousy toward Maines during a conversation with Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith. Yet moments like these only prove to make the Chicks' overall solidarity all the more impressive, and speak to the degree of access allotted to the filmmakers throughout filming—this is a warts and all depiction of a life as a band, and a life as best friends.
The picture was shot on digital video in a 4:3 aspect ratio, and the DVD features a clean, detailed transfer and Dolby Digital stereo sound, which comes to life during the frequent musical segments. No special features save the very good theatrical trailer (that makes this movie look a bit like The Insider) are included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If the picture ever lost focus, it was during a sequence of Robinson and Maguire discussing their pregnancy difficulties and home life. While it added to our overall understanding of these women, it was the only time during the film that felt more like a documentary on the Chicks themselves than the specific situation in which they found themselves between 2003 and 2006.
I would have really appreciated some supplementary material describing how this project came about—clearly some sort of documentary was already in the works, as the filmmakers were with the Chicks on tour when the fit hit the shan. It was rather fortuitous for all parties that Kopple and Peck were there, and I would have liked to hear what the project was originally intended to be.
Shut Up & Sing provides an insider's look at the creation of an album and its supporting tour, back-room public relations strategy meetings, and personal reactions to public insults. While you may or may not like their music, it's hard not to respect the Dixie Chicks after seeing the grace and consistency with which they approached an unforeseen and unwanted battle. This is one of the best documentaries of the decade.
Not guilty—they haven't done anything wrong.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Theatrical Trailer
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