Directors: Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Barbara Kopple has done it again. The preeminent documentarian of the American experience and Cecilia Peck, her codirector (and daughter of Gregory Peck), have turned their compassionate beam on the three gifted and courageous women whose idea of being patriotic created the greatest crisis of their professional lives. Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing takes us along with this phenomenally successful band from the night in 2003 lead singer Natalie Maines told a British audience that the Chicks were ashamed that the President of the United States was from Texas to the recording of their album, Taking the Long Way, an angry and emotional chronicle of their experiences.
Before 2003, country music fans made the Dallas-based Dixie Chicks the top-selling female group in history. Natalie Maines and sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison were selling out stadiums and living the life of millionaire recording artists and peformers, though they were not yet on the radar screen of most Americans. The film opens with the band getting ready for their concert in Shepherd’s Bush Empire theatre in London to open their Top of the World Tour. A television playing in the background shows then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s WMD dog-and-pony show at the United Nations, and President Bush’s warning to Saddam Hussein to disarm within 48 hours or accept the consequences. Soon thereafter, the Chicks take to the London stage and Maines utters her famous statement to thunderous applause: “We don’t want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”
Within hours, the comment has made news in the States. Disappointed fans don’t understand how Maines could be so disrespectful and unpatriotic. Country music stations stop playing the Dixie Chicks on the air. A couple of right-wing organizations organize CD destruction events, and an apology by Maines gets no traction. The mainstream media sit up and take notice. Eventually the Chicks are interviewed by television journalist Diane Sawyer and make the cover of Entertainment Weekly.
The film captures the intense debates between the Chicks and their stalwart manager Simon Renshaw about how to respond to the controversy. Maines, the most vocal of the band members, is adamant about sticking it to country radio, offended that they refuse to play the group’s music—not even their runaway-hit single. The backlash intensifies as country singer Toby Keith exploits their problems by writing a song criticizing them and whipping up his audiences to oppose them. We are in on the Chicks’s bull-session about how to respond. Maines famously hits the stage wearing a T-shirt that has the initials FUTK on the front. Anti-Chicks forces respond with an FUDC T-shirt. We hear Martie quip, “What have they got against Dick Cheney?” Eventually, we share the tension when the Chicks bring their Top of the World tour to Dallas. They have received a death threat, and their fear is palpable. Although Maines tries to lighten the mood with a joke to the camera crew before going onstage (“I’ll see you in four hours, if I’m not shot.”), her black humor conveys just how horrifying the lives of these American successes have become.
All of the film footage up to 2005 was shot by a variety of people. Kopple and Peck meticulously assembled it and added to it with video footage of their own in a film that looks visually coherent and surprisingly crisp. Their own footage concentrates on the private lives of the Chicks and their recording session. We meet Natalie’s father and learn how a tape he made of her for her application to the Berklee College of Music in Boston eventually ended up with Maguire and Robison and landed her the gig with the Chicks. They chronicle Martie’s pregnancy and delivery of twins, and listen as she and Emily talk about their struggles to become pregnant. This struggle will become the song “So Hard.” We watch as the band decamps to Los Angeles to write and record Taking the Long Way with famed producer Rick Rubin. Natalie’s rendition of “Not Ready to Make Nice” shows that the war against the hate of the fans who rejected the Chicks and the government that ignores the wishes of a wide swath of the American electorate rages on:
I’m not ready to make nice
I’m not ready to back down
I’m still mad as hell and I don’t have time to go ’round and ’round and ’round
It’s too late to make it right
I probably wouldn’t if I could
‘Cause I’m mad as hell
Can’t bring myself to do what it is you think I should
I made my bed and I sleep like a baby
With no regrets and I don’t mind sayin’
It’s a sad sad story when a mother will teach her
Daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger
And how in the world can the words that I said
Send somebody so over the edge
That they’d write me a letter
Sayin’ that I better
Shut up and sing or my life will be over.
It is fascinating to see how these women create their lives, make their music, rejoice in their triumphs, and seem to be made stronger in the crucible of public controversy. They are loving parents and spouses, shrewd businesswomen, incredibly funny and warm, and principled in a way that few entertainers with so much to lose could be. And they do take a real hit. Although their CDs continue to break sales records, their concert sales are sluggish, and schedule changes must be made.
While I’m sure Cecelia Peck contributed a lot to this film (she and Kopple previously collaborated on A Conversation with Gregory Peck, with Peck producing and Kopple directing), it is veteran director Barbara Kopple who must have led the way. The film has the kind of intimacy she is always able to achieve, and the perfect pacing and judicious editing of hundreds of hours of footage to find exactly the right images and tone to tell the story.
While Kopple’s subject matter usually has a liberal bent, if you did not know her body of work, you would not be sure of her politics. Her genius is in letting her subjects tell their own story. Even the actions of the “villains” are simply presented. A consultant from the Lipton Tea Company, which sponsored the Top of the World Tour, is shown frankly explaining the company’s discomfort with their political stand. Maines tries to explain that it was just a comment in the heat of the moment designed to rouse the crowd, but over time, her own simple faux pas seems to radicalize her.
Maines, with the support of her bandmates, let out the dirty little secret that some all-American girls from the South are liberal and can distrust and dislike a right-wing government. This revelation is educational for both the super-patriots from country music’s stronghold states and liberals in other parts of the country who look at the South as a land of rednecks. Let’s not forget that the original American protest singer, Woody Guthrie, was from Oklahoma; it appears that the Chicks from neighboring Texas, who are still stumping for basic human rights as they continue to make music, are following in a tradition much older than the radical right claims to represent.