Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing
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'And how in the world can the words that I said
Send somebody so over the edge that they’d write me a letter sayin’
that I better shut up and sing or my life will be over' -- The Dixie Chicks
In 2003, the Dixie Chicks were the top selling female artists of all time and the darlings of country music, but when they kicked off their tour in London that year, a city which had just drawn out a million protesters of the Iraq War, lead singer Natalie Maines told the crowd that she was ashamed George Bush was from her home state of Texas. The U.S. media picked up on the reported comment and a firestorm of negative backlash saw the Chicks' number one single slide down the charts and country music radio ban their music. Directors Barbara Kopple ("Harlan Country, U.S.A.," "Wild Man Blues") and Cecilia Peck chart the three ensuing years in "Shut Up & Sing."
The chicks aren't such a famous band, someone notes, that people know their individual names - like the Beatles - yet Maines' off the cuff comment, enthusiastically received in its time and place, has reverberations that echo John Lennon's 'Jesus' comment of decades past. Haven't we learned anything in forty years? Like the Beatles' experience, the Chicks explain themselves over and over while the speaker remains defiant. Right wingers in southern states burn their music and radio stations ban them. The Beatles stopped touring in the wake of death threats, and sure enough, Natalie Maines receives a credible warning that she will be shot during a concert in Dallas - a concert that the Chicks go forward with.
"Shut Up & Sing" cruises backwards and forwards, charting the Chicks daily lives. Banjoist Emily Robinson lives with her rancher husband. Both Martie and Natalie are married to actors - Martie living in Austin, Natalie with Adrian Pasdar in L.A. We learn how the current group formed (steel guitarist Lloyd Maines, Natalie's dad, left an audition tape of his daughter singing with the previous incarnation), and how they chart their course with manager Simon Renshaw (who testified at a congressional hearing that Cumulus Broadcasting had thumbed its nose at the First Amendment). Natalie's feisty refusal to 'make nice' is exemplified when she hears Bush's reaction to her statement ('They shouldn't have their feelings hurt just because some people don't want to buy their records when they speak out') - she looks at the camera and calls him 'a dumb f*&K.' That same spirit comes to the fore in a reaction to a Tobey Keith diss - and starts a war of 'FUTK' tees against 'FUDC' shirts (Maines gleefully cackles post-concert that she was tempted to ask an FUDC wearer what he had against Dick Cheney).
Kopple and Peck's film create three distinct impressions. Firstly, that freedom of speech is a freedom worth fighting for, an irony given the war the Chicks speak out against. They weren't the only entertainers to feel the suppression of freedoms Bush's war against terrorism wrought, but three years' events prove vindicating. Secondly, the Chicks are a tightly knit sisterhood, a hugely refreshing portrait when female infighting is so often what's reported. Fiddler Martie Maguire actually breaks down in tears at the thought that Maines may still be feeling guilt over the effect her remarks have had on their career. These woman don't only share a career, but motherhood, their recording sessions a 'village' of child rearing. Lastly, another irony. In 2006, the Chicks release an album that veers outside their country roots while commenting - strongly - on their post-remark experience. They go on tour to find their U.S. audiences dwindling. Yet this documentary may be just the thing to find them a new audience. This non-Country fan was surprised by how much she enjoyed their music.
In 2003, the Dixie Chicks were one of America's most popular country bands, and perhaps the biggest selling all-female band ever. They still are, and now they've just won five Grammy awards. But in between, an awful lot of people did their best to put an end to this success. Why? Because the Chicks were country musicians, and southerners, who dared to publicly oppose the Iraq war.
The blowup began quite inadvertently. They were touring Britain, and could not help but notice the huge groundswell of anti-American opinion that was sweeping all of Europe in the days prior to the invasion of Iraq. So, in mid concert, lead singer Natalie Maines said to the audience that they opposed war and that incidentally, "we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." The remark quickly got back to the US, and ignited a firestorm of negative reaction.
One thing I had not known before seeing this film is just how organized this negative reaction was. It was promulgated in much the same way that the propaganda effort to get people behind the war was: top-down, from a cadre of opinion-makers who appointed themselves to tell the public how to feel. Radio stations quit playing Dixie Chicks songs because people kept calling in to demand that no more of them be played... but it turns out that the calling campaign was organized by pro-war activists.
The campaign originally began at a website called freerepublic.com. (And it quite surprised me to learn this, because I'm not unfamiliar with that site, and frankly, it's pretty unusual for that pack of hate-spewing losers to manage to pull off something like this successfully.) From there, it escalated rapidly, to the point where the conglomerates who own radio stations by the dozens were pulling the Chicks off the air across the country by executive fiat, and finally, Natalie Maines received a letter stating that she would be shot dead at their next concert in Dallas. The threat was so serious that the entire audience had to be metal-detected.
Radio stations and other groups organized mass throwing-away and smashing and running-over-with-bulldozers of Dixie Chicks CDs. People picketed the outsides of the concerts and told passersby that anyone listening to their music now was supporting Communism. It was nuts. Remember how for a couple of years everybody on the pro-war right decided that all good Americans should hate and despise the French? Remember "freedom fries"? (Freedom fries are no longer served, but the Star Spangled Ice Cream Company still sells a flavor called I Hate The French Vanilla. And they discontinued Cherry Falwell!) This became every bit as ugly and ludicrous and irrational an overreaction as that was. And all of it was egged on by the usual hate-clowns on talk radio and Fox News, plus pro-Bush country music figures such as Toby Keith, who got into a prolonged and childish feud with the chicks (but now claims he never did support the Iraq war). The result was, of course, that the Dixie Chicks' radio play and record sales plummeted.
Yet the shows still filled up pretty well. The people inside still greatly outnumbered those outside with signs, a fact which both sides seemed to largely ignore. Those at the shows still cheered the band, even when invited to get boos out of their system.
The documentary charts the progress of the Chicks from bewildered, to apologetic, to aggravated, to defiant, to thankful -- concluding finally that the whole mess was entirely to the good. And the film shows why: it shows how they made their triumphant comeback for the next album and tour. They didn't triumph because public political perceptions changed; they triumphed artistically. Their new success came about by making their music more true and personal than it had been before, and by abandoning any effort to get back into the good graces of country radio.
At its core, this movie is not about a political process, but a creative one.
The band had started out as a traditionalist group, playing bluegrass and western swing. Their success came only after two major changes. First, they acquired a new manager, an Englishman named Simon Renshaw. He persuaded them to move toward a "contemporary" country sound -- that is, to play something compatible with Nashville pop (which at that time was predominantly a sort of bad imitation of old-wave rock music -- a sound that arguably had more in common with, say, George Thorogood and the Destroyers than with Hank Sr.) The second was when they replaced their original lead singer with Natalie Maines.
The Chicks did keep their style at least somewhat country, just by virtue of the fact that the core original members, sisters Emily Robinson and Martie Maguire, played banjo and fiddle. What Nashvegas sells nowadays is a little more country-like than it was then (and the Chicks can probably take a bit of the credit for that trend), but the thing is, they were never entirely married to that particular genre of pop swill, they just went along with it while it paid well. They were already moving away from it again before The Incident. So when the country radio audience rejected them, they in turn rejected the country-radio sound. The documentary vividly shows the artistically freeing effect of this -- how the three, instead of acquiring the bulk of their material from professional songwriters, started creating all of their own works in a fully collaborative way, bouncing lyrics back and forth among everyone in the room. The new lyrics were overtly defiant toward those who had tried to blacklist them, and the new sound, while still rooted in traditional stringed instruments, was no longer beholden to anyone from Nashville. In essence, they abandoned their lucrative established audience and went looking for a new one. They found it.
And ironically, the result is that we'll never know if they would be forgiven by their previous fans. When they went back on tour, tickets sold poorly in the South but briskly in the North -- most briskly of all in Canada. It rather sounds like Southern audiences three years after the controversy were smaller than at the height of it. With many former attackers now having egg on their faces over the results of the war (the film shows Howard Stern, for one, making a gallant apology to them), you'd think that a good percentage of those offended would forgive them... but the music itself had moved away from the tastes of the South, and now we'll never know.
The way it's been talked about, you'd think this film was about how those who tried to kick the Dixie Chicks out of country learned their lesson and had to admit defeat. But it's really about how the band outgrew country, or at least "country" as defined by Nashville and the entertainment media. And sadly, we're left with an impression that the self-appointed patriotism platoons who drove them out are likely still there and still as benighted as ever... which probably isn't even true now, at least not to anything like the same degree.
The lessons of this story can't help but project onto the larger issue of how we got ourselves into a war in Iraq: namely, the importance of going "whoa" before letting yourself be stampeded into hostilities by somebody else's agenda. I just hope that the next time some thumping rabble-rouser tries to panic the public into some rash folly or other, there will be those among us who remember how much we came to regret the last time we went along with such pressure, whether it was to invade a country that had done nothing to us, or just to picket a country band.
The film is in 4:3 aspect ratio, apparently shot mainly with basic video cameras.
The only extra is a theatrical trailer. And unfortunately, there are two other trailers and an anti-smoking ad before the main menu. Fortunately, they can be chapter-skipped. The one other plus on the disc is subtitles in English and Spanish.
The one other thing that needs to be said about the DVD transfer is that there's nothing wrong with the audio from their performances.+
Editorial Reviews Amazon.com:
Shut Up & Sing finds two-time Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple (American Dream) and co-director Cecilia Peck following the lives and career developments of the Dixie Chicks in the wake of singer Natalie Maines’ denunciation of the Iraq war and President Bush in 2003. The film returns to the pivotal moment in which Maines, speaking to a London audience, raised opposition to America's invasion of Iraq, resulting in a backlash in America. The Chicks, as one sees, have had little peace of mind since then, banned from country music stations, picketed at concerts, and targeted by death threats. Maines, Martie Maguire, and Emily Robison respond to the extensive and sometimes scary criticism they've faced, though their latest music, including a song called "Not Ready to Make Nice," also speaks for itself. Kopple and Peck spend a lot of time with the band on a human level as well, in homes and dressing rooms and recording studios. The collective--and quite touching--portrait is of three women who wish only the best for one another and back each other's decisions all the way. This is essential viewing for fans of the gifted Kopple as well as the always-against-the-odds Dixie Chicks. --Tom Keogh
(Documentary) "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." This film documents how those 15 words in 2003 took the Dixie Chicks from the peak of their popularity as the top-selling female recording artists of all time, through the days, months and years of mayhem that followed.
"Shut Up and Sing" is a revealing look at the hysteria that surrounded the Dixie Chicks in 2003 after lead singer Natalie Maines took a very brief jab at President George W. Bush in London on the first night of a worldwide concert tour. The new documentary follows the band through the conclusion of that tour, the recording of their next album two years later, and how those seemingly offhanded words wound up changing their careers in between, as well as shifting their fan base far, far to the North.
I'll confess I didn't know much about the Dixie Chicks in March 2003, apart from their inescapable cover of "Landslide". However, I spent a lot of time that month driving around the East Coast south of the Mason-Dixon line, listening to talk radio and seeking (what proved to be false) justification for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. I heard first-hand a lot of the venom being directed at the group through talk radio and the right-wing blog-o-sphere. "Shut Up & Sing" shows the actual concert footage at which Maines spoke her now-infamous two anti-war sentences, and the resulting furore seems more attributable to the power of right-wing media than to anything intrinsically offensive in what Maines said.
"Shut Up & Sing" is told in cinema verite style. There's no narrator, and most of the action unfolds in overheard conversations between the band, their manager, studio engineers, corporate sponsors, and publicists. The movie jumps back and forth several times between the parallel storylines of the 2003 media frenzy and the 2005 recording of their follow-up album. In the Upper West Side theater where I saw the movie, the greatest applause was reserved for Maines' spontaneous cursing out of the President following his ill-chosen words during a Tom Brokaw interview she sees on TV. Also fascinating is a visit to producer Rick Rubin's house as the Chicks try to tease out a new musical direction for their next album following their abandonment by the country radio format. Rubin inadvertently steals the movie for that one scene. Are those rosary beads he was clutching?
The film's structure works quite well, as we see the group struggling in equal measures with recording a new album in a new genre, and dealing with the unwanted attention following the media frenzy. It might help to know more about the Dixie Chicks before going on; I learned more about them on Wikipedia after the movie than I did in the theater. Obviously that caution won't be necessary in most of the country, but I live in a city without a country radio station. The movie's ending is bittersweet, with some band members questioning whether the struggle and its effect on their careers was worth it. By the end of the movie I came away with a greater appreciation for their characters, if not necessarily of their music itself. What happened to them was a travesty, but hopefully the new frontiers that subsequently embraced their music (Canada) will remain a strong fan base and continue to support the group.
It took just a few choice words against the President of the United States by lead singer Natalie Maines in London to land the Dixie Chicks in a lot of hot water back home in a country gearing up for a war in Iraq that its planners had no clue how it was to be won. But three years later, the times have changed, the tables have turned; and with that same President's popularity ratings in the cellar, the Chicks have since turned all the trouble they went through into a great album--and a great documentary film.
Made by veteran documentarians Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, SHUT UP AND SING details the travails of the Chicks as they deal with the political, economic, and even life-threatening consequences of Natalie's incendiary comments, made only nine days before hostilities commenced in Iraq, and it also shows an America, particularly that part below the Mason-Dixon line, awash in the kind of blind patriotism that led to the mass crushings of Dixie Chicks CDs that had an eerie resemblance to the Beatles getting their records treated the same way after John Lennon's infamous "more popular than Jesus" statements in 1966. But we also get to see the familial side of Natalie and her bandmates Emily Robison and Martie Maguire and their significant others, and how each and every element of their lives during those three years led to the creation of their album TAKING THE LONG WAY.
While probably quite a few cynics, particularly on the far-right of the political spectrum, will demean this film as a Chicks pity party, it is nothing of the sort by any means. Nor is it merely about freedom of speech, though that element is unquestionably in there. SHUT UP AND SING, at its heart, is about the purest form of American patriotism there is--love of family; love of the best of this great nation of ours, and a willingness to realize our faults. It makes no pretenses at depicting the nasty reaction of Red-State America and the callousness of the Bush administration towards the Chicks as anything less than hypocrisy at its highest; both groups come off even worse in many ways here than they did in FAHRENHEIT 9/11, and this without Peck or Kopple ever being known as agent provocateurs like Michael Moore.
The family and musical moments of SHUT UP AND SING are also interspersed with animated conversations between the Chicks, their manager Simon Renshaw, and their album producer Rick Rubin, as well as some incendiary and blackly comic comments made by Natalie about both Bush and Cheney. All of this makes for a ferociously patriotic and all-American film about true American pride where three women from Texas stood up for what they believed in, even when it was wildly unpopular, and came out stronger from the experience. Kudos to the Chicks, Kopple, and Peck for showing us what our country can still be if we fight for what is right!
I am an American living in Canada and I saw the movie when it was released in Victoria. The movie was fabulous. It was an honest depiction of what ensued after Natalie's simple statement. What made my viewing experience even better was the cheering, clapping, and ultimately standing ovation at the theater. The Canadian crowd LOVED the movie.
I must say there were many times during this movie that I could feel tears welling up in my eyes. I took my daughter to see it (warning there are some curse words) and she really liked it. Afterward, she wondered why it was such a big deal for Natalie to make a statement. Even for a primary aged kid, she was aware of Freedom of Speech and the reaction just didn't make sense to her.
The best thing in the movie was to see how the Chicks drew strength from one antoher during this ordeal. I think that so much of the reaction to the statement was gendered. Yes, the US was going through this pseudo-patriotic time, but the ways in which the DC were attacked often was filled with sexist tropes.
I'm buying this movie as soon as it comes out and will be showing it in two of my classes. One class looks at globalization and the other is a gender and politics class. I think the nativist and xenophobic reactions by some of the "haters" will cause interesting discussion in class.
Overall, I'm hoping that more people will come to enjoy their music and respect that they stood by one another. I can't wait to see them again in concert. I'm a long time fan of the DC.