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November 29-December 5, 2006

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'Shut Up & Sing'

Photograph by Jerome Prebois
Remember the Maines: Fans express their gratitude to the Dixie Chicks for saying what most people were afraid to utter aloud.


'Shut Up & Sing' tracks the fallout from the Dixie Chicks' modest demur

By Richard von Busack

ACTUALLY, what Natalie Maines should have said was "George W. Bush makes me proud that I'm not from Connecticut." Barbara Kopple's film Shut Up & Sing records three interesting years in the life of the Dixie Chicks. The trouble begins in 2003 as George W. Bush gives Saddam and his boys 48 hours to get out of town. Touring England, while some of the largest peace demonstrations in global history are forming, the Dixie Chicks make a stop at the Shepherd's Bush Empire Theater (italics ours). Onstage, the blonde, big-boned and pretty lead singer, Natalie Maines, assures the audience she's on "the good side" of this political strife, and that W. makes her ashamed to be a Texan. Maines' nervous but heartfelt comment is printed (approvingly) by the Guardian. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, the statement is picked up by the usual gang, who urge a radio boycott against the wicked Chicks. Maines apologizes, saying the comment is a joke. The footage here suggests it wasn't; Maines looks scared to say what she is thinking, as so many were during the apogee of W's reign.

The damage was done. Kopple records the subsequent events: a tour hexed by demonstrators, and a death threat. (The irrepressible Maines comments that her potential assassin isn't so bad-looking.) Naturally, there is much, much cudgeling of brains by the punditocracy. The ineffable Bill O'Reilly intones that someone should slap the Dixie Chicks around for slandering the president. Singer/songwriter/rabbleologist Toby Keith claims that Natalie is Saddam's secret girlfriend: First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Saddam in a baby carriage! But that blessed event must wait until pregnant Chicks member, Emily Robison, has her twins. And then the trio poses for the Live Nude Chicks cover of Entertainment Weekly. Eventually, the Chicks bail out of Nashville for L.A. and take up recording sessions with the drummer from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Craftily, the Chicks try to broaden their appeal after being forcibly uprooted from their fan base by the girlcott. The Internet giveth after it taketh away. The new album becomes a chart-topper despite the continuing radio blackout.

Kopple is one of the most respected of political documentary-makers. Her résumé includes Harlan County, U.S.A., as well as American Dream, that pre-Fast Food Nation record of what the meat industry did to its workers. Unfortunately, Kopple and her camera-people never quite get into the groove of a Chicks show or rehearsal. On the political level, Shut Up & Sing makes one respect and admire the band. On the musical level, it never makes you love them, unless you love them already. That's the tragedy of filmmaking; no one person can have every necessary skill. Kopple has proved herself as a brave and tough filmmaker, but she lacks the less significant talents a journeyman MTV director would have. Let's consider Shut Up & Sing, then, as strictly a political exposé: a story of a nation that, once upon a time, took pride in its gallantry and its sense of tolerance. Today, the Chicks' career proves the ancient showbiz motto, "One monkey don't stop the show," even if the simian in question lives in the nicest house on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Movie Times Shut Up & Sing (Unrated; 93 min.), a documentary by Barbara Kopple, opens Dec. 1.

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