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The power of one statement

`Shut Up & Sing' details the controversy that engulfed the Dixie Chicks after Natalie Maines' anti-Bush remark.

October 27, 2006|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

Near the end of Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck's documentary "Shut Up & Sing," Martie Maguire, the Dixie Chicks' perky, deeply dedicated fiddler, reflects on the three years of turmoil that overtook the country trio after singer Natalie Maines remarked onstage in London that she was ashamed President Bush was from Texas, her home state. (The singer's notorious aside, seen in its full glory here, actually roped in her bandmates: "We are ashamed," she said.)

Maguire expresses concern that Maines can't outrun the event's seemingly ceaseless after-currents. She says that she wants her musical partner to know that the controversy is the best thing that ever happened to their group. Then she bursts out crying.

The moment casts light on the convolutions that ensued when Maines' rock 'n' roll attitude collided with the Bush administration's spin on the eve of the Iraq invasion. At the time, the Dixie Chicks were among America's top acts, having sold 10 million albums worldwide. They'd topped all of their country music peers and made a new place for female instrumentalists in pop.

Maines' onstage aside changed all that. Having never recorded an explicit protest song, the Chicks suddenly became the world's best-known political artists. Country radio effectively banned the group; Bush supporters staged CD-trashing protests and picketed their concerts. The group had to completely rethink its career strategy, an effort related here in scenes of collaborating rock songwriter Dan Wilson, Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith and producer-transformation specialist Rick Rubin.

During this process, the Chicks continued having and raising babies, maintaining marriages and trying to hew to their life purpose: making music, a central activity featured in rehearsal and concert footage. The tensions any band goes through -- creative differences, work-life issues and especially the need to balance a charismatic frontwoman's desires with those of her loyal bandmates -- were massively exacerbated. The Chicks' story became not just their own but a saga of working people caught up in social forces beyond their control.

The story is ideal material for Kopple, whose films get inside the lives of two seemingly disparate groups: prominent artists and proletarians. Her frequent collaborator Peck has her own insights into the pressures of celebrity. Her late father, the subject of a previous Kopple film, was actor Gregory Peck.

"Shut Up & Sing" reveals the Chicks as both stars and workers, following them through studio sessions and business meetings as they juggle early motherhood (and, in the case of banjo player Emily Robison, the birth of twins) with the unforgiving schedule of a major touring band. From the very first scene, when Maines' son Beckett toddles into the backstage area before a concert and picks at his mama's guitar, the quieter revolution in which the Chicks play a role -- of women integrating personal ambition and the longing for family -- unfolds.

Kopple and Peck's unobtrusive lens reveals the distinct personalities that allowed the group to survive career cataclysm. Maguire is the die-hard musician, still tied to country music traditions but willing to move beyond her doubts about the band's shifting image to keep playing.

Robison, her sister, is the quiet one who finds solace with her rancher husband and children when the going gets rough. One amazing scene shows Robison sitting in a hospital bed, about to give birth, as Maines and Maguire read celebrity magazines -- just three moms perusing Us Weekly as they wait out a life change, except these gals find themselves in its pages.

Maines remains something of a cipher, more a gale force to which her bandmates (and manager, Simon Renshaw) must constantly respond than a sympathetic sister. If not for the controversy, this story would have been the typical rock-era one of a star elevating her bandmates' status, then having to figure out whether to stick with them. Instead, Maines becomes a politicizing agent; her refusal to back down in the face of venomous attacks, including an all-too-palpable death threat, tightens the band's bond and inspires all to raise their own consciousness.

Anti-Chicks activists and rationalizing radio programmers get face time, but Kopple and Peck's view is not unbiased. Clips of Bush make him seem callous. Protesters come off as foolish; one demands that her tiny, puzzled son repeat an expletive directed at the Chicks.

Despite its clear perspective, "Shut Up & Sing" is not agitprop. Instead, it echoes Kopple's greatest work -- the Oscar-winning documentary about a 1974 Kentucky miners' strike, "Harlan County U.S.A." -- in showing in painful detail how regular people rise to meet an extraordinary occasion. It just happens that these regular people are also superstars.

ann.powers@latimes.com

*

`Shut Up & Sing'

MPAA rating: R for language

A Weinstein Co. release. Directors Barbara Kopple, Cecilia Peck. Producers Kopple, Peck, David Cassidy. Cinematography Christine Burrill, Luis Lopez, Seth Gordon, Gary Griffin, Joan Churchill. Editors Bob Eisenhardt, Jean Tsien, Aaron Kuhn, Emma Morris. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.

Exclusively at AMC Century City, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd. (inside Westfield mall), (310) 289-4AMC.

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