The Dixie Chicks are the subject of an excellent well-crafted new documentary by Barbara Kopple. Shut Up and Sing. The title comes from one of the country group’s ex fans who would feel perfectly content if everything that is disturbing to her was censored and muzzled. Why are artists assumed to be exempt from having opinions about political causes and world matters? Why are they just supposed to entertain? This contempt for the artist as the public's stooge recalls some of the films of Ingmar Bergman about the theme of the artist as outsider such as the most vivid example The Magician (1958, Sweden).
The Dixie Chicks gained infamous popularity after a statement made at a concert in London in 2003 that they were ashamed that George Bush Jr comes from Texas. The comment was picked up by the Guardian in London and syndicated making its way back to the USA. A personal opinion about the governor from the state of Texas, who many still refer our controversial often foot in mouth high commander as, is all lead singer Natalie Maines expressed, but it’s like the game of gossip when someone whispers a simple statement into someone’s ears and by the time it gets around the circle it’s completely distorted. After the comment the group got death threats and were declared unpatriotic, radio stations wouldn’t play their music by listener request and their concerts and record sales sagged. It smacks of the way Jane Fonda’s visit to North Vietnam was used in a smear campaign to make her an enemy of the state. The most revealing comment made by Martie Maguire in the documentary is that the hidden reason they seem targeted is because they are supposedly a nice group of refined women that represent the myth of purity in America. And it seems like the unpopular war in Iraq needs a scapegoat just like the Vietnam War to stop the dissent. What better target than women. It also seems true that war is ultimately about a deep down hatred of women, as bearers of life on this planet. So to this end Kopple gives ample room to the fact that these women are mothers with children and husbands who support their work with intimate scenes of the women and their loved ones. These are some of the best parts of the film, especially as one finds it hard to fathom death threats from people who don’t even know them and what was actually said.
The film principally shows the interactions between the PR and record label people who handle the Dixie Chicks, personal comments from Natalie Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire and about what happened to them since the London concert, and the reactions good and bad to their work. It is an impassioned study of a group who speaks their mind spearheaded by a frivolous comment on a night in a country where the anti war sentiment is strong especially the unpopularity of Bush’s ally Tony Blair. To what extent are artists allowed freedom of speech, that is the question and why the immature belief that artists are wind up talking dolls in service to the people. The extent to which corporate radio yanked the music off the airwaves shows a very sad and disturbing state affairs about basic civil liberties in our country. Shut Up and Sing shows that it is all about freedom of speech and expression and how we had better not forget it. Freedom of speech, speaking out and having a voice. Yeah! On to the Grammies Dixie Chicks. You go girls!
Review Broadcast For Movie Magazine International, San Francisco. December 29th 2006 ©Moira Sullivan