Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing

Toronto World premiere

Sharp and engaging, Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing, by the first-rate American documentarian Barbara Kopple and her collaborator, Cecilia Peck, is a funky, raw and passionate portrait of the superb musical group the Dixie Chicks.

Infused with a novelistic sense of surprise and events spiraling out of control, the docu records and celebrates an individual sense of artistic defiance and political freedom. The movie is impressionistic, not linear, dancing back and forth in time. It a smart reflection of the emotional and physical requirements of being music stars, trying to balance artistic needs, market concerns and personal lives.

The Dixie Chicks band, as their intrepid manager Simon Renshaw points out, has sold more records than any other recording act in the previous eight years. The group was popular enough in 2003 to be chosen to sing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl.

Forget All the Kings Men (which also premiered in Toronto this week), perhaps the most disturbing portrait of demagoguery and political polarization of films at the film festival is revealed in the strange, almost unaccountable commercial fortunes of the band following politically charged comments made by their lead singer, Natalie Maines, at a London concert, at the start of the groups European tour that coincided with the American invasion of Iraq.

The music industry is harshly regimented by style and type of play, and the group has been identified, perhaps even restricted, as a country and music act. At the ironically named Shepherds Bush Empire concert hall in March 2003, during one of her typically loose, funky exchanges with the audience, Maines said, Were ashamed the president is from Texas. Given the rise of digital technology, how quickly information moves and the popular spread of blogs, Maines comment gained immediate traction in conservative media outlets. Virtually overnight it set off popular revolt in the South's media and political culture.

The Dixie Chicks were suddenly under assault, upbraided for their alleged betrayal, their songs suddenly, and inexplicably dropped from the play lists of top country rock radio stations. Even more disturbing, the group found itself the subject of death threats, or public acts of desecration, where copies of their music is seen being destroyed, and the group is publicly vilified by a street protest that feels like hate-mongering. They can move to France, one angry protester yells.

A journalistic portrait of how the band dealt with the fallout, by extension, Shut Up and Sing becomes an uneasy though fascinating inquisition into the shifting nature of political discourse and free speech, thoroughly proving how fractured and contentious contempo American culture is.

The only two-time Oscar winner for Best Documentary (Harlan County, USA, American Dream), Kopple is one of the best and most interesting disciples of the legendary filmmakers Masyles brothers. Shes a muckraker in the best sense, a journalist with a radical humanist bent who knows how to pursue a story. Cecilia Peck is the daughter of the late Gregory Peck (known for his democratic convictions and the subject of a previous Kopple portrait), and shes a first-hand witness to entrapment and surreal existence of being a public celebrity.

A music “junkie” herself, Kopple has done excellent work on the subject in the past, inWoodstock 94, My Generation, among others. She also directed the excellent portrait of filmmaker Woody Allen, Wild Man Blues, during his European sojourn playing with his jazz group.

Shut Up and Sing builds on these works smartly and capably, layering political repercussions, public performance, artistic evolution and market factors. On the most direct level, the docu is a showcase of the women's beautifully evocative music, the alternate grace and intoxicating rhythm of Maines plaintive voice, and the wonderful byplay of Maines, Martie, Maguire, and Emily Robinson.

As the fature's title suggests, the filmmakers are shrewd enough to let the music eviscerate the absurdity and surreal nonsense that encircled the band. The footage smoothly alternates rehearsal sessions detailing the production of their most recent album, Taking the Long Way, and their concert performances. Removed from the ideological divide, Shut Up and Sing offers different, recurrent opportunities to see the group on stage. Kopple and Peck are good at personalizing, even individuating the performance styles, and reveal how the three musicians interact and play off each other.

The filmmakers clearly had close access to the group, and some of the strongest, most compelling scenes are the loose and casual conversations between the Chicks members, discussions about family, sex, children, and music, all chronicles in ways that humanize and deepen their work.

The film argues, and its reinforced by the group, that if their popularity did suffer, and if there was a coordinated campaign to punish them commercially, the artistic dividends were considerable. Taking the Long Way opened at number one, sold one million copies in the first three weeks of release. If anything, the women have reinvigorated themselves musically, and opened their work to a more diverse and celebrated audience.

Natalie Maines refused to back down, and that sense of thrill, excitement and uncompromising belief in their work and value shapes every moment of the docu. Shut Up and Sing ends on a note of public defiance, when the group returns to the very theater in London that ignited the firestorm of protest.

Written by Patrick McGavin