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 Way in 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.
There are faded recollections of those long-ago days in Shut Up & Sing—some old snapshots taken in a produce section, some grainy video footage of the girls in their shiny skirts. But that was another lifetime ago: Where once they were greeted with kisses and hugs here, they came to play the American Airlines Center in 2003 and were welcomed by cops warning of death threats. In the film, it's depicted as a triumphant moment: They never consider not playing, and Maines even cracks wise at the photo of the suspect: "He's kinda cute," she says while having her hair done. "Well, he is."
Yet Martie suggests toward the movie's end that the lead singer has always felt guilty for what she said—that she feels not only did she endanger the sisters' lives, perhaps, but most certainly their careers, which they've worked for since they were in their first band in their teens. Martie tearing up and breaking down, says that was never the case, but had it come to it, she and Emily would have given up music if it meant saving the band. It's a wrenching and perfect moment and what the entire film builds toward: This isn't about a sentence spoken without forethought or even malice, but about how three women stared down ruin without ever once thinking there was any other option.
"What I saw happen in such an incredible way, and it had a deep impression on me, is their sense of friendship and the huge bond they have together and how they have each other's back and how that grew so strong through all of this," Kopple says. "I saw that emerge, and it made me think about my whole life and my friends and how we let work interfere with who we are. That was huge. They were surprised anyone would care what they said, they were shocked. But it was the most amazing thing that ever could have happened to them. It allowed them to grow and do this wonderful album, and they have emerged as women who are larger than life and taking those risks and making those choices for themselves and by themselves."
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