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Shut Up & Sing   B+

The Weinstein Company / Cabin Creek Films

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Directors: Barbara Kopple, Cecilia Peck
Cast: Natalie Maines, Emily Robison, Martie McGuire.

Review by Rob Vaux

On the surface, Shut Up & Sing makes it very easy to rally around the free-speech flag. Its chronicle of the controversy surrounding country music band the Dixie Chicks and their statements on the eve of the Iraq war is clearly in the blue-state camp, and the access that directors Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck had during the three years between the group's "fall from grace" and return to the top of the charts aligns the film's sympathies clearly with its subjects. But a closer look produces an infinitely subtler look at the issue -- how freedom of speech in the 21st century is dominated by the elite on both sides, how a voice is nothing without a microphone to amplify it, and how so much of our public discourse continues to be driven by the bottom line.

It also acts as a more traditional backstage biopic, given a fresh spin through the unique nature of the band itself. As the most popular all-female ensemble in the world, the Chicks follow a different pattern than most performers of their stature. There's no bacchanalian excesses on display here, no Spinal Tap indulgence in sex, drugs, and gauche sensuality. Instead, a family atmosphere dominates: toddlers run free backstage, while understanding husbands try to balance the needs of parenthood with the realities of life on tour. The big personal drama (aside from the obvious) is not a stint in rehab or a scuffle with the cops, but rather instrumentalist Emily Robison's struggles to conceive a child. It's a far cry from your average Behind the Music soap opera... and yet, as captured by Kopple and Peck's camera, a few similarities can be spotted. The trio still quietly exudes privilege and entitlement, notably with lead singer Natalie Maines, whose brassy mischief suggests a woman unaccustomed to having her wishes challenged. They're surrounded by an army of handlers and managers -- sharp professionals, we are assured, but also perpetrators of the bubble separating the Chicks from their adoring public. And as most people know by now, that public turned on them faster than anyone could have conceived... precisely, in part, because of the band's detachment.

Shut Up & Sing illustrates that by shuttling back and forth between the Chicks' Top of the World Tour in 2003 -- when Maines' notorious "we're ashamed of the president" comment launched a firestorm of protest -- and the creation of their new album in 2005, as they continued to assess the fallout and how it would affect their future as musicians. Kopple and Peck chart the expected tropes of the blowup quite well, as the Chicks' largely Southern fan base howled in rage at their perceived lack of patriotism. We see the picketers outside of concert venues, hear from radio DJs overwhelmed by calls to ban the Chicks from their airwaves, and touch upon the corporate forces pulling the strings behind the scenes -- right-wing PACs and media conglomerates who stood to benefit from such demagoguery. It also adroitly (if obviously) illustrates the profound lack of tolerance for dissent or discussion at the time, especially from those presuming to defend American values from the "traitorous" likes of the Chicks.

Had Shut Up & Sing limited itself to that perspective, however, it would have remained largely unexceptional. But its depiction of the band itself paints a picture that's not nearly as black-and-white as it first appears. By virtue of the very fame that allowed Maines' comments to spread so far, the Chicks have access to weapons that none of their critics could ever hope to wield. They arrange for a Diane Sawyer interview and appear on the cover of Entertainment Weekly; their handlers speak of milking the controversy for a few added sales; and an eventual apology/press release is so polished and spin-laden that it severely undermines the spontaneity that accompanied the original comment. The overall image reveals a landscape defined more by money than by principle, in which the cost of speaking out is measured in dollar signs rather than social stigma. Within that framework, the public is a chess piece to be pushed to and fro, both by the Chicks and by the forces arrayed against them (the sea change between the 2003 segments and 2005 speaks volumes about America's general muffin-headedness). Such is the nature of discourse in the 21st century, it tells us, where speaking your mind only matters if you're famous... or can parrot the corporate-approved sound bites with sufficient enthusiasm.

Yet at the same time, Shut Up & Sing reveals a shade of genuine political discourse beneath that storm. Whatever compromises their public persona demands, the Chicks seem to believe what they say, and are willing to pay the price for saying it. Maines can be irritating with her pushy demeanor and smug "What did I do?" grin, but at the end of the day, she sticks to her guns, and her bandmates close ranks like Roman legions behind her. The pain of the growing scandal can be seen on their faces, but they also succeed in transferring it in positive directions, resulting in creative growth that strengthens them as artists. Shut Up & Sing certainly isn't shy about extolling their talent (even detractors concede that their music rocks), and new listeners have ample opportunity to evaluate them in terms other than political bias. But credit Kopple and Peck for reining in their adulation long enough to let their filmmakers' instincts shine through. The result is a fascinating and well-executed hybrid: combining musical biopic and political examination to produce something more memorable than either would be on its own.

Review published 03.01.2007.

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