Movie Review: ‘Shut Up And Sing’

Entertainment Weekly Cover, May 2003

Every generation has one. In 1966 John Lennon said:

“Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. We’re more popular than Jesus now.”

Radio stations banned their music. Records were destroyed and broken. The conservative religious right in the US was outraged and condemned the superstar.

Even the Vatican took a shot at Lennon.

In March 2003, the Dixie Chicks performed in Shepherd’s Bush, London. In between songs, lead singer Natalie Maines said:

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.

Radio stations across the southern United States banned their music. CDs were destroyed. Conservative Americans condemned the Dixie Chicks and protested against them.

Even former president George W. Bush took a shot – “They shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just because some people don’t want to buy their records.”

This entire fiasco, from the concert in 2003 to their next tour in 2006, is captured in a brilliant documentary aptly titled ‘Shut Up And Sing.’ Directed by Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, the depths to which this fly-on-the-wall feature goes is truly spectacular.

With the US invading Iraq and globally polarised views on its legitimacy, the debate was just about to begin. Maines’ statement sparked a wildfire of targetted personal attacks on each member of the band. This film chronicles their struggle to emerge unburnt and with their dignities intact, as a band bows to no one.

Watch the trailer here:

Poster, 'Shut up and Sing'

 

The Chicks were at the top of their game, selling record after record. The biggest female band in history were America’s sweethearts. They were untouchable.

Natalie Maines’ comment changed all of that as the band were plunged into a world of tight security, death threats, boycotts on their music and themselves, political turmoil and protest.

The American public were cleaved neatly in two – those who threatened the Chicks with shootings and destroyed their music, and those who spoke out and joined them in voicing disagreements with President Bush’s administration.

This is a movie to watch to understand the complexities about the Iraq war debate in the US.

Before watching this movie, I wasn’t familiar with the Dixies Chicks or their music, preferring instead to dismiss them as just another girl band singing about boys.

But this isn’t a documentary about the Chicks. It’s an engaging commentary on the freedom of speech and the position that entertainers and artists find themselves in American society.

To quote a protester from the movie:

Freedom of speech is great but by God you don’t do it in mass public.

The trio were dragged through the mud, as conservative Southern “fans” demanded apologies and staged huge and vicious protests.

Radio stations across the South refused to play their music and everyone seemed up in arms about the whole situation for years.

The Chicks were forced to make apologies and explain the reasons behind Maines’ comments. The band’s solidarity was tested.

The ‘sisterhood’ was put through the mills but still managed to come out at the end with their integrity and their values.

In an interview with Ellen deGeneres months later, Maines commented on the reason behind her decision to speak out – the image of the US and the American people abroad.

It was very maddening for me because they [the foreign media]  always lumped Bush and the United States or Bush and the Americans all into one person, one opinion and one idea…when I said what I said I thought I was being patriotic. I mean, here we are, three women from Texas of all places…I thought I was sticking up for what was right, but I got knocked back.

Looking back at John Lennon, decades later little has changed. Artits are free to sing about whatever they feel fit but it seems they’re chastised the moment they ‘step out of line’ and criticise the political situation around them.

The Dixie Chicks, for example, were accused of unpatriotism.

But what better way to be a patriot than to know your country for all its good and all its faults? To recognise that it isn’t perfect, that there are flaws in attitudes and thinking, and to bring your government to account for their shortcomings?

Several press conferences, interviews and years later, the Chicks came out with an album titled ‘Taking the Long Way’. Not only is it beautifully written and sung, it’s reminiscent of Dylan and Springsteen, of an earlier time when our artists were our ambassadors of political change.

The trio are fearless and have put their emotions and thoughts into song and into this documentary. Tracks such as ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’, ‘Lubbock or Leave It’ and ‘Taking the Long Way’ are perfect examples of the journey taken to get to the album. Redemption in the eyes of the public, never giving up on their morals and of making sure they don’t cower away from controversies.

All three ladies are married with families, and songs such as ‘Easy Silence’ and ‘Everybody Knows’ are testaments to the love and support they got during this impossibly difficult time.

In a weaker alliance, perhaps some would turn on their friends. Maines’ comments cost the other members Emily Robison and Martie Maguire their careers for the forseeable future. They stuck together and got stronger through the pain of those years. The Chicks wanted to make sure that any album that came after this terrible time was a reflection of their story – an autobiography of sorts.

‘Shut Up and Sing’ is proof that we should not allow ourselves to be silent, that we should hold our governments responsible for their actions; that through speaking out, we can change perceptions of the issue at hand, at the very least. More than that, it’s a personal tale of friendships, families and the power of music in unifying a people and a sisterhood.

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