In 2003, Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines made a now-famous offhand comment about President Bush at a London concert.
“We’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”
Coming just as the U.S. military was gearing up to attack Iraq, it was real bad timing. The country music lovers back home who supported both the Dixie Chicks and the war began to rethink their position, and most of them decided it was the Dixie Chicks who had to go.
A new documentary entitled “Shut Up and Sing,” about the group’s experiences following the remark, wants so badly to be about censorship and free speech. Unfortunately, it does not tell us anything more than a segment on “60 Minutes” could have. By refusing to delve deeper into the psychology of the Chicks’ opponents, directors Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck offer little more than a portrait of a band struggling to save face and keep their financial position intact.
The Chicks were turned into unlikely liberal martyrs following Maines’ statement, but never really elaborated fully on their political beliefs. For all the candid backstage and backroom footage we are privy to in the movie, most of it seems carefully selected to show three things. First, that bandmates Martie Maguire and Emily Robison backed Maines every step of the way, despite their significant loss of revenue. Second, that the band really are a “family values” kind of an outfit. And lastly, that their fallout in popularity has only made them stronger as artists. It is a shrewd PR move to position the film this way, but it makes for some pretty tough viewing.
Maguire and Robison look pissed and worried, as anyone would be if their multi-million dollar corporation was now jeapordized by a casual remark. Standing by their bandmate does not seem like a conscious choice so much as the only option left after Maines’ apology failed to quell the controversy. When interviewed, they avoid clarifying where they stand on the surrounding issues. I’m sure it was a tough time for a company that’s used to raking it in, but this isn’t exactly protest music they’re singing here.
A timeline that jumps back and forth is used to wring some suspense out of a death threat that Maines received, but all momentum is lost when the directors insist on showing us the band’s home lives. It makes an interesting point about the women as breadwinners in their households, but seems more designed to show us that the Chicks are just plain folks, like you and me. Watching them have kids and seeing how much they love their husbands stops the film dead in its tracks.
As far as their new music goes, the women are shown in the studio writing and recording their new album and using their alienation from the country music industry as inspiration. Unfortunately, they are also shown getting lots of help from super-producer Rick Rubin, Semisonic singer/songwriter Dan Wilson, Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, and Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, among others. Maines struggles to move her lyrics beyond the painfully literal, and aside from Maguire’s worry about where her fiddle will fit in to the band’s “new sound,” there is little depth to explore in these scenes.
Had Kopple and Peck instead delved into why this backlash happened and what specific political power structures there are with a stranglehold on country music radio, “Shut Up and Sing” would have been a more intriguing watch. In order for the movie to work as anything other than a pleasant diversion for the band’s fans, it needs to be more about society and less about the Dixie Chicks not being able to afford a private bus on tour for each of their families.