Letting them speak

Rated 4.0

The Dixie Chicks were hugely successful when lead singer Natalie Maines made her soon-to-be-notorious remark about President Bush at a London concert in March 2003 just as the Iraq War was starting up. The subsequent multimedia brouhaha created a crisis for the group, but Maines and her bandmates—the sister team of Martie Maguire and Emily Robison—remained unapologetic, and the Dixie Chicks have become, if anything, even more successful in the time since.

Maines’ remark and its aftermath, and the Chicks’ steadfast defense of their own personal and professional integrity, provide the basic framework for the documentary Shut Up and Sing. Produced (and co-directed) by veteran documentarian Barbara Kopple, this 93-minute feature adroitly mixes genres—it’s a music performance film, socio-political chronicle and cinema vérité portrait.

What emerges onscreen is primarily a picture of the Dixie Chicks as they navigate three-plus years of double-edged notoriety. The film also works, in part, as a series of pop-cultural snapshots from our present era of social and political fracture.

Kopple’s editing of backstage stuff from ‘03 and more recent times brings out a feisty sort of undogmatic feminism in the trio’s attitudes and conduct as musicians, women, wives, mothers and sisters, metaphorical and actual. In some of the more domestic moments, you get a particularly strong impression of all three being women whose fierce devotion to their music can’t be separated from the integrity of their everyday lives.

The group’s music remains central throughout. The one sour note, for me, is in the disparaging remarks (by the group’s manager, Simon Renshaw) about the Dixie Chicks’ music in their pre-Maines (and pre-Renshaw) incarnation. Ten seconds of an Austin City Limits clip could have dispelled that notion.