In many segments of the music world, anti-Bush banter has become as much of a ubiquitous, tiresome live-music cliché as commands for crowds to give themselves a hand, or exaggerated displays of affection for whatever city a performance is taking place in. But in the God-fearing, flag-waving realm of mainstream country music, Dixie Chicks frontwoman Natalie Maines ignited a firestorm of controversy with a rather tame condemnation of President Bush in front of a receptive London audience; it made the trio the most hated group in country music. Radio stations turned on a group they helped make one of the top-selling country acts in history, and a backlash hit with shocking ferocity.
As Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck's engaging new documentary Shut Up & Sing reveals, the Bush controversy radicalized the Dixie Chicks, transforming them into outspoken poster girls for free speech. The film explores the myriad consequences of Maines' offhanded banter-heard-round-the-world, from death threats to a possibly imperiled relationship with sponsor Lipton Iced Tea. (Oh, the price of free speech!) Shut Up & Sing's most revealing scenes explore the tricky relationship between art and commerce, and the way the politics of the music business overlap with the business of politics. On one level, the Chicks are in a privileged place from which to take a political stand: Maines won't be forced to get a second job at Kinko's if the Chicks aren't able to fill arenas like they used to. But once a group becomes that big, they essentially become an industry unto themselves, with all the responsibilities that entails.
Shut Up & Sing wrestles with a number of compelling issues facing the Dixie Chicks without going into too much depth on any particular one. The filmmakers' respectful distance from their subjects never evolves into the voyeuristic intimacy of Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster, a much more revealing look at superstars working through a crisis. Maines' big mouth and winning candor got her into trouble, but Shut Up & Sing suffers from filmmakers who are intent on playing it safe.