One of the subtle charms of watching Dixie Chicks -- Shut Up & Sing is the way it constantly challenges the viewer to look at the country trio's trials and tribulations after a controversial remark from a variety of perspectives. Liberals can't help but sympathize with the group's defiance in the face of what appears to be a combination of right-wing demagoguery, corporate conspiracy and a basic disregard for First Amendment rights. Conservatives can't help but fume at lead singer Natalie Maines for expressing shame at her shared Texan heritage with President George W. Bush on the eve of the Iraq war -- before a British audience, no less -- and the group's subsequent fumbled attempts first at apologizing and then whining at the supposedly sad plight.
It's the points of perspective in between on the ideological spectrum, though, that really make this documentary by veteran progressive filmmaker Barbara Kopple and partner Cecilia Peck such an intriguing if sometimes frustrating film to watch. Blessed with unlimited access to the band's journey from Maines' Big Moment in 2003 to the release of their Grammy-winning album, last year's Taking the Long Way, Kopple and Peck sometimes succumb to the temptation and overplay their hand with such access. It's all Dixie Chicks all the time, and while they're a pleasant enough trio and Maines is a sassy protagonist, you can't help but feel trapped backstage once too often.
So was Maines "wrong" to mouth off the way she did at the first concert of their Lipton-sponsored tour? The exact quote was, as she was warming up to her London audience: "Just so you know, we're on the good side, with y'all. We do not want this war, this violence. And we're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas." That debate alone is worth a documentary unto itself, and it's unfortunate that Kopple and Peck make only token attempts to provide a reasoned context for the public (and country-radio backlash) -- even if the punishment ultimately didn't fit the supposed crime. Instead, we get countless images of yahoos and hyperbolic, name-calling signs. Although it should be noted a Republican congressman is seen on TV making the rather obvious point that Maines experienced that delicate moment when an entertainer enters the political arena and pays a price.
Whether intended or not, Kopple and Peck capture the group in all its sometimes-awkward glory, including a telling, early attempt at damage control that shows how career, money and ambition force artists to consider compromise.
As the backlash builds in the form of country-radio boycotts, loss of sponsorship and slightly smaller concert attendance (and a nutcase death threat played up to great effect), the strain on the group members morphs into a renewed sense of defiance. Say what you will about Maines, a gifted vocalist and compelling subject, she constantly juggles bravado with an impudence that barely masks a surprising naïveté. At one point, banjo player Emily Robinson -- who comes off as the soul of the group -- fights off tears of sympathy for Maines, because she knows the toll the ordeal has taken on her friend.
In fact, Shut Up and Sing is at its best when the band is at its most professional and its most personal -- when the cameras capture both their electricity onstage and their family life offstage. It's a nice human touch that never feels forced.
But in a delicious bit of what Kopple sends up as validation, it's Bush's popularity that starts to sink like a stone as the war effort sours, and Maines can't help but gloat a little bit. This, as the group struggles to find the right tone and vision for the album Taking the Long Way -- apologetic or defiant, country or rock? -- sets up the final scene of the film that should go unreported for those who didn't see the theatrical release. Let's just say it calls into question Maines' ultimate belief about her historic comments and their context.
And the debate, long after the movie's over, continues. The group's perfect 5-for-5 at the recent Grammy Awards -- after getting shut out of any nominations at the Country Music Awards -- could be viewed as the ultimate vindication. Maines, in her snarky acceptance speech, surely thought so. I'm not so sure; the album is so undeniably listenable and engaging, it's almost impossible not to honor. Great art is supposed to come from great suffering, as they say, although in the grand scheme of things it's difficult to grasp just how much they suffered. They went from being a wildly successful group to a very successful group.
Maines may be a pistol when she speaks, but irony aside, she really is at her best when she does in fact shut up and sing. And there's no debate about that.