From left, Emily Robison, Natalie Maines, and Martie Maguire in Shut Up & Sing.
There's a knock on the dressing room door. Simon Renshaw answers. It's the police, the hall manager, the head of security, someone - whoever it is, they look official and bear grave news. Renshaw, motherly and quietly atwitter, is the British manager of the Dixie Chicks. He is the fourth Chick (more or less). He has that nervous Spinal Tap look about him - as badly as things are going for his three superstar ducklings, there's always what he hadn't considered. For instance, there's always assassination. Hadn't thought of that one yet. But there's something about a death threat that makes it leap to the top of your list of concerns.
This happens midway into Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck's superb new documentary Shut Up & Sing, which explores the intersection of our 24-hour media bubble, commerce, and creativity as well as any picture in a while. The filmmakers have become prototypical flies on the wall, hovering and listening and weighing the importance of private and public acts. Famous people have allowed this verite, you-are-there approach for decades, from Bob Dylan's Don't Look Back to Madonna's
Truth or Dare, and when it's done right, there is tension:
It's seductive to think this is how it truly is when the cameras are turned off, yet you instinctively consider the spin - what does the artist being filmed get out of this, and how much of this image, even the negative aspects, is shrewd image manipulation? If you admire a performer, asking skeptical questions like that, understandable as it is, can seem like disloyalty. But it's that strain between being a journalist and being an admirer that gives Kopple and Peck's film real crackle.
You may not admire the Dixie Chicks. Or you may. You may think they have big mouths or that, as the bumper sticker says, obedient women rarely make history. Either way, the filmmakers follow their reportorial instincts and let the chips fall, and so it's possible to watch Shut Up & Sing and come away thinking that the group is naive, and it's possible to come away with a deep respect - or both at once.
Anyway, Kopple and Peck (Gregory's daughter) bring those feelings of ambivalence to a head in the backstage scenes in Dallas - Dallas, of all places. Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the band, made a nasty comment about George W. Bush a few months earlier while on stage in England. Other musicians have said worse. But the country music community is apparently akin to the Borg - monolithic and without an ability to detect shades of meaning. It closes ranks, claims treason, and effectively shuts the Chicks - the biggest-selling female band in music history - out of its home.
Now the FBI says a man sent a note indicating he will shoot Maines during the Dallas show.
Watch her face.
They hand her a picture of the guy. "He's cute," she says. The room gets quiet. "No, really, this guy is not bad looking at all." But with only minutes before the concert, they have to go on. The room gets silent and you see the color drain from Maines' face.
How did we get to this place?
Shut Up & Sing is not one of the dozens of anti-Bush documentaries made in the past five years; it's too much about the Chicks' daily lives as they are under siege to become a polemic. But it does capture the divisiveness of this nation as well as any political documentary. What happens to them is not mere criticism or boycott but a systematic branding. That this film comes out a few weeks after midterm elections signaled a major shift in America's political climate makes the movie more engrossing. Back in 2003, when Maines said what she said, Bush was popular and the mere notion of balking at a president with a lot of power could bring a charge of treason.
The footage of the comment comes early. The band is on stage in London. War is hours away. Maines tells the audience, "Just so you know, we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas." You might be surprised to actually see the footage (which was being shot, not by Kopple, for a concert DVD). Maines is not frothing at the mouth, or pumping her fist, or tearing American flags. She is speaking as a native Texan - she is asserting her independence, and with a wry laugh she says what will follow her to her grave.
But there's subtlety here.
To her, Bush isn't enough of a Texan. But it hardly matters, because the line is clearly not rehearsed or meant as a call to arms. She's addressing what's on everyone's mind, and she's dissenting, and though that's real patriotism, none of it comes up. ("I couldn't believe people actually cared what I said," she says.)
Kopple and Peck are there for the fallout. In one of the film's most fascinating moments, the band and Renshaw try to come up with an official response. You read these watered-down apologies all the time from celebrities, but here you watch one get formulated, and remarkably, their response is not watered down. They close ranks among themselves, and though you always wonder how the other Chicks, Emily Robison and sister Martie Maguire, must feel about being thrust into overnight infamy, you witness how being alienated can eventually seem liberating.
They stick to their guns. Kopple doesn't like martyrs. It's too easy. But she does have a history of making documentaries (the Oscar-winning Harlan County, USA, for starters) about people who refuse to back down when tested, and Shut Up & Sing fits in perfectly.
Her secret is showing her subject's blind spots without taking away the tiny victories. One producer tells of how he brought the Dixie Chicks a song with a message of forgiveness and they rewrote it and handed it back to him, but with a galvanizing note of defiance. It's the hit "Not Ready to Make Nice," and it has the great line: "I made my bed, and I sleep like a baby."
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org