Dixie Chicks documentary speaks loudly about America
December 21, 2006
Aspen, CO ColoradoThe short description of “Shut Up & Sing” is that it is a documentary about the country singing group, the Dixie Chicks. A slightly longer tag line would include that the film examines the Dixie Chicks’ fortunes following an impromptu onstage comment by lead singer Natalie Maines, bashing President George W. Bush.”Shut Up & Sing” in fact, opens up a rich vein of themes: sisterhood and motherhood, making music and marketing it, bravery and contrition, and, above all, freedom of speech. Following Maines’ utterance – “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas,” spoken to a London audience in March 2003, as the U.S. was preparing its invasion of Iraq – country radio banned the Dixie Chicks, fans boycotted them, and Congress held hearings on corporate control of commercial radio. The president himself got into the fray, responding in an interview with Tom Brokaw by defending Maines’ freedom of speech, but adding, “They shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just because some people don’t want to buy their records when they speak out. Freedom is a two-way street.”The controversy embodied the sorts of weighty issues that should have a documentary filmmaker drooling. But Barbara Kopple wasn’t thinking of the potential exploration of the dynamics of First Amendment rights, or the redemption of a pop group at odds with its fan base. Kopple just wanted to see what would unfold in front of the camera.”As a documentarian, once you’re told you can have access and can film, you don’t think like that,” said Kopple, who co-directed “Shut Up & Sing” with Cecilia Peck. “You want to make the subject as comfortable as you can, and let it go from there. You don’t think, ‘What kind of film can I make?’ You let them be the characters. Because it will always turn out way more interesting than you could imagine.”
Kopple’s let-them-be approach has led to a pair of Academy Awards for best documentary feature: 1976’s “Harlan County U.S.A.” and 1990’s “American Dream.” “Harlan County U.S.A.,” her first film, released when Kopple was 30, was intended to examine a union-related murder and the subsequent attempt to overthrow the UMWA president. But a violent miners’ strike erupted in Kentucky, and Kopple switched gears to focus on the unfolding drama. “American Dream” also explored a worker strike, this one in a meat plant in a small Minnesota town.Kopple, in fact, was interested in making a documentary of the Dixie Chicks before they were thrust into the political spotlight. Back when the Dixie Chicks, a trio of Maines and sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, were a simple mega-selling country group – their albums “Wide Open Spaces” and “Fly” both reached 10 million in sales – a mutual friend told Kopple enough about the band to pique the filmmaker’s interest.”We thought they were interesting for so many reasons,” said Kopple, by phone from her home in New York City. Among those reasons was the song “Goodbye Earl,” a massive hit about spousal abuse from 1999’s “Fly.” “They took such a dark, heavy subject, domestic violence, and made it a girl-power piece. Instead of sad and depressing, they made it darkly funny.”We wanted to know more about them, see who they were.”The project stalled early on, as the band had hired a website crew to document their tour. They couldn’t see how a film crew would add effectively to the coverage. After Maines expressed her view on President Bush, and the firestorm that followed, Kopple became more persuasive, and the band saw good reason to have their existence – onstage, backstage, at home, in the delivery room for the birth of Robison’s twins – documented for a big-screen treatment.
“Shut Up & Sing” proves Kopple right: The Dixie Chicks prove far more daring and interesting in reality than Kopple and Peck would have conceived them in their imaginations. The film, which earned the Audience Favorite Documentary in its U.S. premiere at Aspen Filmfest in September, frames a band that, in an unscripted moment, risked all the considerable success they had built up. Their initial instinct is to make nice, apologize in just the right words, and put the incident behind them. But when the Chicks see the reaction from the largely conservative red state country-music world that had been their base – fans burning their CDs, radio stations outlawing their songs – they decide to embrace the controversy as an opportunity.Working through their fear, even death threats, the Dixie Chicks make a calculated decision to ditch the country music realm and relocate to the rock sphere. It is a risky move, and the film captures the sense of vulnerability the group feels. Robison says that, having climbed to the heights the band had achieved, she couldn’t face downsizing to club gigs. For their first post-incident album, “Taking the Long Way,” released in May, the band hires iconic producer Rick Rubin (who had worked with Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beastie Boys and Johnny Cash) and sought more of a rock sound. Most daring, the Chicks wrote all their own songs for the first time. Anything but their own words, observes Robison, would seem phony. And while some of the songs, like “Not Ready to Make Nice” and “The Long Way Around,” directly address the conservative lashing, others show the band thinking about other topics in a similarly deep way. “So Hard” is about Robison’s difficulty getting pregnant; “Lubbock or Leave It” is a bitter song about the South that spawned the Chicks.”It’s a great story of transformation, starting from scratch and finding their niche,” said Kopple, whose other films include “Wild Man Blues,” a profile of Woody Allen, and “A Conversation with Gregory Peck,” featuring the father of her “Shut Up & Sing” co-director. “It takes a really negative experience and transforms it into an empowering one. We were totally enchanted with who the Chicks are, how they have changed, how they became comfortable in their own skin and became proactive in their careers. They went over every part of their lives, business and everything else.”
The fillm allows the more political issues to unfold naturally out of the Dixie Chick’s story. Freedom of speech matters get a vital workout in a living, contemporary context: How much of a backlash against one person’s words amounts to a suppression of that person’s views? Or the views of the next person who might float some controversial ideas?”We can’t take it for granted anymore, if a musician is banned from radio and the musicians are given death threats,” said Kopple. “When you have that going on, you’ve really got to question the sense of freedom of speech in this country.”The filmmakers were confronted with such questions themselves. NBC wouldn’t accept advertisements for “Shut Up & Sing,” citing a policy of not airing ads for politically controversial material. The network relented when Harvey Weinstein of the Weinstein Company, the film’s distributor, intervened.”Shut Up & Sing” ends on an ambiguous note. As the Dixie Chicks plan their first major tour behind “The Long Way Around,” ticket sales in some of their old strongholds, especially in the South, are weak enough that they change course and play mostly Northern cities and a bunch of Canadian dates. But the final chapter of the Dixie Chicks, written after the film was completed, has an almost fairy-tale ending. The band has been vindicated by Bush’s plummeting approval ratings, and even more so by the Democratic victories in the last month’s election, which Kopple says has made the story “less blue state, and more America.” And two weeks ago, “The Long Way Around” earned six Grammy Award nominations.
The film, said Kopple, “is a celebration in a way. It allows us to take stock in America, and it’s a hopeful story. If you stand up for what you believe in, other people are going to stand with you.”Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings presents “Shut Up & Sing” on Saturday, Dec. 23, at 5:30 p.m. at Harris Concert Hall. The series continues with daily screenings (except Sunday, Dec. 24) through Jan. 1. For complete program details, go to http://www.aspentimes.com/film.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org