Shut Up & Sing
It's not often careers are derailed as dramatically as the Dixie Chicks'. One minute the country/pop trio are singing at the Superbowl - one of the most coveted gigs in the showbiz calendar - and launching their Top of the World tour and just a few weeks later, fans are trashing their cds and radio stations across the US are refusing to play their records.
All this because of an off-hand remark lead singer Natalie Maines voiced on stage at the Shepherd's Bush Empire ten days before the invasion of Iraq. 'We're ashamed the President of United States is from Texas,' she announced.
Maines later admitted she was playing to the crowd - and of course the crowd loved it. But when the press picked up on the story back home, the reaction was very different. Maines was branded a traitor to her country and ridiculed for having the temerity to poke her head above parapet. A conspiracy-minded individual might suppose the rightwing zealots were intent on shutting down debate about the war before it even started.
Being mega-stars in the making, the Dixie Chicks had their own camera crew on hand through out this furore - there is even footage from before, during and immediately after the fateful concert. Esteemed documentarian Babara Kopple (Wild Man Blues) and her partner Cecilia Peck only came on board later, but the band granted them open access, including candid footage of meetings with their British manager Simon Renshaw, where everything from abject apology to steely defiance is put on the table and debated.
In what may have been their boldest PR move, the band appeared tastefully naked on the cover of Entertainment Weekly magazine, tattooed with oppositional buzz words: Traitors, Big Mouth, Free Speech, Dixie Sluts, Peace.
Willie Nelson never had to go through this - which is partly the point of Kopple and Peck's film. The fact that 'nice' girls from the mainstream dared to speak out and stick up for one another incensed certain conservative elements in the States.
As much as it's about freedom of speech, this is also an intimate observational film about the unusual dynamics in this girl group. Emily Robison and Martie Maguire are sisters who have been singing together forever. Maines came in later, but made all the difference to their success. Still, they were just reaching a new level when the controversy erupted, threatening their future - at least on the big stadium level they were enjoying at the time. Some of the most moving material here reveals how the sisters come to understand how much they have to lose - but stick by their friend regardless.
Cleverly structured to switch back and forth between the uproar in 2003 and the band's return to the fray with a new album and a tour three years later ('Taking the Long Way'), the film shows how Natalie, especially, has been effected, but not only in bad ways: she emerges with a stronger voice and a deeper understanding of what freedom really means.
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