Shut Up & Sing

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The Weinstein Company
Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck/United States 2006

The MPAA has slapped Shut Up & Sing with an “R” rating. As a documentary that magnificently demonstrates how actions have unintended consequences and how politics impact our personal choices, Shut Up & Sing asks whether or not our constitutionally-protected rights can be abused and where – or if – we should draw the line. It does, on the other hand, include a couple of jokes about blowjobs and a baby’s bottom as wells as show Dixie Chicks’ lead singer Natalie Maines calling President George W. Bush “you dumb fuck” (which garnered a round of applause at the screening I attended). Do these mild filmic misdemeanors justify the actions of the MPAA in keeping American teenagers from deciding the truth about the Dixie Chicks for themselves?

In the 1990s, Dixie Chicks Martie Maguire, Emily Robison and the aforementioned Maines were the undisputed queens of country. With two diamond albums – that’s sales of over 10 million each – to their credit, it was during a world tour for the album Home when they played a show in London in March of 2003. Compared to the vast arenas they normally sell out … it was a bar gig: America was poised to invade Iraq and the mood in Britain was loudly against the war.

Between songs, Maines said 13 words. The crowd cheered, the rest of the show went well, and everyone went home. A brief review of the gig appeared in the London Guardian. And nothing was ever the same for the Dixie Chicks again.

Although it’s a long way from Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning documentary, Harlan County, U.S.A., she’s no stranger to musicians embroiled in controversy after the Woody Allen-as-clarinetist film Wild Man Blues. Kopple and Cecilia Peck followed the Chicks in 2005 as they debated lyrics, joked in the recording studio, and recorded songs for their current album, Taking the Long Way. Although the impetus of the film is a political controversy, the directors never forget there are three talented musicians at the heart of it. The closest we get to a Spinal Tap moment is when the Chicks, their producer Rick Rubin and his shaggy-mop dog, all bop along to a track.

By inter-cutting behind-the-scenes footage of the controversial 2003 show with the genesis of Taking the Long Way in 2005, the film fully explores the Chicks’ musical strengths as well as their undeniable motivations for a change of direction. With an unobtrusive filming style, Kopple and Peck gained total access to the Chicks’ lives, even present at the birth of Robison’s twins.

During the labor, Maguire and Maines were in the room flicking through magazines and chatting supportively. The clear and profound bond between them – which is the core of their appeal to female music fans – is what’s enabled them to come through this together. In the most moving moment, Maguire even says she’d give up her career if Maines asked her to. When you consider she founded the band with her sister in 1989, that’s no small promise.

Kopple and Peck have created a frank modern exploration of how an artist’s life can impact an artist’s work. By the end, it’s clear that the backlash against the Dixie Chicks has made them stronger people and better musicians. Some people may never enjoy their music while others may never respect the statements they make. But everyone should admire how they’ve made it through a precarious situation with their heads held high. There is and could be a lot more topical discussions surrounding this film – discussions potentially pertinent for teenagers – which makes it’s hard to understand the MPAA’s decision.

© 2006 Sarah Manvel. All rights reserved.

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