“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.”
In 2003, at the height of their popularity and only days before the US-led invasion of Iraq, Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines was silly enough to make this off the cuff remark to their audience at a concert in London. The shitstorm that followed is the basis for this excellent documentary that never seeks to glorify the Chicks, but shows their best and their worst during the years it has taken for them to recover from that one moment. That it also gives an incredible insight into the problems of blind faith (in this case, patriotism) and intolerance in the US is its deeper value.
One could be forgiven for suggesting it wasn’t a bright thing to say, even less so when it seems it was said without much thought of the potential to offend. In times of great political turmoil, and as a representative of such a high profile example of ‘good old American’ values, something like this was always going to get picked up and reported widely, and one would think if you were going to do it, you’d better believe it. One of the more revealing aspects of this film is the way Kopple and Peck demonstrate the gradual firming up of their beliefs, such that when initially offered the chance to apologise, they do, but when subsequently asked, they stand up for themselves and write the Grammy Award winning Record of the Year “Not Ready to Make Nice”.
Shut Up & Sing is structured such that the intial sequences show the Chicks at their hottest just before the comment, and then skips backward and forward between 2003 and 2005, contrasting aspects of their lives between the two time periods – immediately following the comment and two years later. Finally, 2006 rolls around and the Dixie Chicks are promoting their new album and planning their Accidents & Accusations Tour. In general, the structure supports the contention of growth and change over time, amplifying the contrasts more than may otherwise have been.
The startling hatred and vitriol that followed the comment in 2003 is brilliantly demonstrated, building over time through destruction of CDs to loss of radio airplay, boycotts and finally death threats. Interviews with regular Americans who betray themselves as insecure and intolerant, and (laughably) accuse the Dixie Chicks of ignorance when many of their placards are misspelled, reveal the much vaunted American principle of free speech is nothing more than a shadow. The right to express one’s opinions is maintained only if they agree with the prevailing wisdom, otherwise watch out. Even the President gets in on the act, stating “… they shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just because some people don’t want to buy their records when they speak out…”, practically daring the ‘right thinking’ public to stop buying Chicks products.
Kopple and Peck don’t shy away from showing lesser aspects of the Dixie Chicks and their team – their initial response to the controversy is mainly about how best to maximise the benefit of the exposure, never realising that things were going to get so ugly. Preparations for the release of the 2006 album show them debating whether to pander to Country radio stations who dropped them in 2003, and concern about concert ticket sales and the potential financial impact on the Chicks themselves. This is a real strength of the film, and a brave choice – the reality of the industry is big business, and spin and manipulation is all part of it. It would be dishonest not to show the PR guys trying to figure out how to dig them out of the hole, or the band discussing the financial loss they may incur if the concerts don’t sell out.
In what is a truly inspiring story of the recovery of the Dixie Chicks from outcasts to multiple Grammy Award winning heroes of free speech, Kopple and Peck have also produced a record of a moment in time when fear and ignorance, fanned by the manipulation of government, overwhelmed common sense and independent thought. The Dixie Chicks are revealed as courageous and righteous, and the overwhelming failure of the Bush Administration’s policies in Iraq seems likely to mean only one thing – the legacy of the Chicks will be far greater than that of the President of whom they remain ashamed.Rating: