Earlier this year the Dixie Chicks released "Taking the Long Way ," an album they wrote and recorded in the aftermath of a comment lead singer Natalie Maines made in 2003 about President George W. Bush at one of their shows. If, like me, you found "Taking the Long Way" a disappointingly mild response to the bizarre political fallout, listen to it after seeing "Shut Up & Sing," the superb documentary about the country music trio and the flap that engulfed them.
Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck's film is a fascinating look at the intersection of commerce, celebrity, and controversy. Following the Chicks from that infamous London concert to the recording, release, and reception of the new disc, we get a rare backstage view of what happens to celebrities in the crosshairs of notoriety (half-empty concerts and death threats, for starters). We end up so close that the band's songs become emotionally amplified, and the album itself deepens.
By now, you might have heard that on the eve of the Iraq war Maines announced to a crowd that she was ashamed that she and the president were both from Texas. Other entertainers have said and done worse, but Maines's comment caused a firestorm, anyway -- namely with the immense, apparently monolithic country-music world.
Before any of this, the Dixie Chicks were a top-selling act. A month before London, we see them doing publicity for a Super Bowl performance; they're cute, surrounded by corporate logos. Hours after The Comment, they were losing interest in cute. They had been instantly recast as unpatriotic. Country stations stopped playing their songs and videos, and their sponsors got wary (one meeting with a nervous Lipton tea rep is particularly amusing).
Maines and bandmates Emily Robison and Martie Maguire , who are sisters, discuss with their British manager how to proceed with damage control. But as the film goes on, and as Maines readily admits, there was nothing anyone could have done to change what happened. The band simply finds ways of rolling on. Still, the country world's rejection hurts Maines irrevocably, and the film provides an inkling of what happens when an act doesn't stay on-message with Nashville.
But the controversy proves to be liberating, which is why I imagine Kopple and Peck stuck with the project: to watch three entertainers come of age as women and artists. Maines is newly determined to take charge of songwriting (Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith opens their eyes about what it takes to maintain a band's harmony), and the filmmakers follow all three to their homes, to glimpse their lives with husbands and children.
Perky as they seemed, the Dixie Chicks had always stood for a kind of single-minded independence (their biggest single, "Goodbye Earl ," was about killing an abusive husband). But what happened in 2003 altered their brashness. Suddenly, they were outcasts with a peeved fan base, besieged by fellow entertainers like super-patriot and pickup-truck pitchman Toby Keith.
They'd lost their innocence, epitomizing that old Southern saw: What doesn't kill you just makes you stronger.