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November 20, 2006 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | November 20, 2006 |

I grew up in Texas, which instilled in me a respect for homemade tortillas, barbecue, and, for better or worse, country music. Granted, my tastes run more toward Ryan Adams and Lucinda Williams than the goofy twang of Big & Rich or the proud-to-be-white-trash warblings of Gretchen Wilson, which is a distinction I have to make whenever I try and describe my musical interests to someone. Still, though, I’m thoroughly familiar with the genre: If it was a hit for George Strait in the ’80s, I can probably sing it for you. In the interests of full disclosure, I should also tell you I enjoy the Dixie Chicks. So believe me when I tell you I witnessed firsthand the backlash against the Dixie Chicks after lead singer Natalie Maines said in London at a 2003 concert, “Just so you know, we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” The country music culture turned on them with surprising strength and speed, turning an unplanned joke into a career-defining moment for the group. It’s that political fallout and the Chicks’ rocky road ever since that co-directors Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, U.S.A.) and Cecilia Peck chart in the entertaining and uplifting documentary Shut Up & Sing. Parts of it are downright toe-tapping, and I never thought I would use that phrase unironically. Kopple and Peck dissect the controversy that’s plagued the group for the past three years, and show the group coming to grips with their new public identity and attempting to create a new record that does justice to the trials they’ve faced.

The film begins with the Dixie Chicks’ 2003 Top of the World tour to support their acoustic, roots-oriented album “Home.” Their success at the time was pretty much undisputed, and they sold records like no other female act in history. As they prepare to start the tour, they’re also keeping an eye on the news, and the developing troop movements in Iraq that would lead to war within days. At the tour’s London kickoff in March, between songs, Maines addresses the crowd and says, “We’re on the good side with y’all. … We don’t want this violence.” The crowd cheered, and then she uttered the magical phrase about being embarrassed that Bush is from her home state of Texas. Presented in the context of the performance, it’s clear that the statement was an unplanned joke that let Maines riff on her frustrations with the Bush administration. But things get out of control remarkably fast, as Kopple and Peck document the ensuing firestorm that swallows the band. Tour sponsors Lipton begin to panic, and their representative hedges his fears in corporate doublespeak when he tells the group, “At the end of the day, while you’re great musicians, you are a brand.” But what makes the documentary work are the moments where the band members, their manager, the sponsors, and others ruminate on a future the viewer knows all too well will turn out differently than predicted, as when the Lipton rep counsels the Chicks to recant because in a few weeks Saddam Hussein will be dead or captured and the rebuilding of Iraq will have already begun. It’s ironic that for all their public disdain for President Bush, the defining moments of the band’s career and the President’s administration happened less than two weeks apart.

Kopple and Peck then cut to 2005, as the group prepares to record their next album, “Taking the Long Way,” but the filmmakers do more than simply record a dry, behind-the-scenes look at making music. In attempting to show what the band has gone through since going political, Shut Up & Sing turns into an oddly moving portrait of three working mothers who love their families and just want to do what they think is right. The trio’s distinct personalities emerge as well: fiddle player and vocalist Martie Maguire, at first reluctant to tie herself to Maines’ statement, grows even closer to the group as a result of the controversy; Emily Robison, who handles guitar, banjo, and dobro, goes through an emotional pregnancy following in vitro fertilization and eventually gives birth to twins; and Maines grows ever more outspoken about her beliefs. It’s Maines’ anger at the initial controversy that drives the group forward, and that anger in turn hardens into a bitterness and a fierce determination to fight back against the critics snubbing the group and the fans who have turned their backs on a band they used to love.

As the film repeatedly shifts between the immediate fallout of the flap in 2003 and the more recent studio sessions, Maines’ personality dominates the film, from her refusal to betray her convictions to her spat in the press with right-leaning country act Toby Keith, who begins to use Photoshopped images of Maines arm in arm with Hussein in his concerts (which is decidedly uncool). The swirling publicity hell concretizes Maines’ fury, and you can hear it in the concert footage when she belts out the lyric “You don’t like the sound of the truth coming from my mouth”; it becomes her battle cry in a fight she never wanted.

But Kopple and Peck falter a little when it comes to covering all sides of the conflict. They interview plenty of DJs who stopped playing the Chicks’ records, but most of them pass the buck onto the turncoat fans when it comes to the unofficial boycott country radio enforced on the band. And while is singled out as one of the leading organizations that campaigned against the Dixie Chicks back in 2003, no one from the site is interviewed, nor is any attempt even made to do so. A title card informing the viewer of Free Republic’s refusal to cooperate, if there was one, would have gone a long way toward putting Kopple and Peck in the journalistic clear; instead, it’s like they’re slyly unwilling to let the lies get in the way of a good story.

Still, it’s not enough of an oversight to distract from the larger emotional narrative, which ties together the recording process and family life and the trials of being a songwriter and death-threats from unhappy fans and the rousing cheers of the remaining loyal ones and a dozen other disparate things to create a sonic patchwork that is, I reiterate, toe-tapping, as pleasing to hear as it is to watch. The band emerges from the fire three years later with an autobiographical album meant to exorcise the demons that will probably plague them for the rest of their careers. And yet, as each one of them attests, it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to them. Seeing — and hearing — what they’ve become, it’s hard to disagree.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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