By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck were not in London in March 2003, when Dixie Chick Natalie Maines told a Shepherd's Bush Empire audience, "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." The filmmakers wanted to be there—they had begged to be there, in fact, having approached the Dixie Chicks about doing a documentary long before the Top of the World tour. Kopple, an Oscar-winning maker of important and illuminating documentaries such as 1976's Harlan County, U.S.A. and 1991's American Dream, especially was interested in making a movie about the former sweethearts of the rodeo—Maines and sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire—before Maines' off-hand comment disrupted their careers and, in at least one instance, threatened their lives.
Initially, the band refused the filmmakers' advances. They had their own crew with them to shoot footage for the Chicks' Web site on which they'd post the occasional performance video or backstage moment. Besides, they told Kopple and Peck, "We're not worth a documentary."
Fifteen little words changed all that. The chorus of boos swelled into a torrent of threats. Radio-station boycotts fueled CD burnings. In the time it took for U.S. newspapers and TV networks to read and regurgitate U.K. wire reports, the beloved all-American gals singin' country lullabies had become America-haters—the Dixie Sluts whoring themselves for Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and every other dictator and terrorist who hated the red, white and blue.
So Kopple and Peck begged and pleaded their case one more time—as did other filmmakers who wanted in on the action, which showed no sign of abating as 2003 gave way to 2004. In the end, Kopple says, the Chicks chose them because "they trusted us," because they believed the filmmakers "didn't have big egos," because "we're storytellers who would allow them to be who they are." That they were women did not hurt, either. Nor did this one simple, inescapable fact: "Their lives were in such crisis, we were the least significant thing anyone could think of," Kopple says.
The directors began filming the women almost two years ago, and the result is the documentary Shut Up & Sing, half of which consists of the turmoil and crisis management wrought by Maines' single sentence and half of which chronicles the recording of the band's most recent—and, easily, its best—album Taking the Long Wayin Los Angeles with producer Rick Rubin. The result is something every bit as brave and illuminating and as moving as such music-biz documentaries as the Maysles Brothers' Gimme Shelter or D.A. Pennebaker's Dont Look Back or Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.
It has the feel of something overheard, not manufactured; Shut Up & Sing is full of moments that elicit both the grin and the gasp, such as when the Chicks' male manager and female publicist clash over the infamous Entertainment Weekly cover, on which the women appear nude and branded with right-wingers' hateful epithets. Kopple and Peck were allowed access to everything—even the hospital room in which Emily prepares to give birth. Among the movie's myriad plots is the story about how the sisters tried to conceive children and couldn't, until doctors intervened. Shut Up & Sing, despite its rep as a media critique, is not solely about the ongoing battle between the media's perception of the Chicks and their own reality; the word "spin" applies in a thousand different ways here.
Of course, Kopple and Peck did not know what they would find when they joined the Chicks at the end of 2004; good documentary makers find the tale in the editing, when seemingly inconsequential moments become unforgettable, monumental ones. Like when Maines watches George Bush tell Tom Brokaw they shouldn't get their "feelings hurt" by the mean-spirited reaction to her comment. "What a dumb fuck," Maines says, almost to no one at first. Then she looks at the camera and grins, sort of sheepishly and sort of devilishly. "You're a dumb fuck," she says, never one to let well enough alone.
When something like that happens, Kopple says, "you wanna go with it. The important thing is, as Al Maysles taught me—my first job was with the Maysleses—was you have to let your characters be and get your agenda out of your head and allow them to be who they are and go around whatever corner you need to. That's much more fun. Anything in your mind is not that interesting. It's what's real that makes it so much better. And I think that if you don't know who the people are and the human story doesn't bring out the political story, it's hard to connect."
It doesn't seem so long ago that the Chicks were local darlings, frilly li'l things playing Joey Tomato's and Poor David's Pub and every grocery-store opening from here to Corsicana; it doesn't seem so long ago that their occasional Prairie Home Companion appearances were considered earth-shattering events by the locals who knew 'em when. They're the last band on earth anyone ever thought would wind up being nearly run over at the intersection of Media and Politics—these Chicks, the girls who once sang, "Thank heavens for Dale Evans"? Not bloody likely.