Sunday, October 30, 2011

More Singing, Less Politics Sinks The Dixie Chicks' Documentary Shut Up And Sing

The Good: Interesting political story, Some decent music, Articulate positions
The Bad: Overbearing emphasis on the music, Problems with some footage, Lack of information presented/DVD Bonuses
The Basics: Focusing more on how the Dixie Chicks make music than the controversy surrounding a statement that the lead singer made, Shut Up And Sing is fragmented and disappointing.

A few years back, when I was visiting my mother, she had The Oprah Winfrey Show on and the Dixie Chicks were on plugging the documentary Shut Up And Sing. Because I don't do it very often, I vividly remember yelling at the television and getting disgusted with Oprah as she repeatedly asked Emily Robison and Martie Maguire if they ever got annoyed with lead singer Natalie Maines for commenting about George W. Bush at a London show. When both stood by Maines, as they previously had done, she continually rephrased the question and she kept probing Maines clearly trying to get the women to crack and express some remorse for speaking up or for sticking with each other unfailingly. It was one of those annoying television moments where it becomes clear that an interviewer has an agenda as opposed to seeking the truth. I was honestly pleased when none of the trio wavered from their stance or was suckered in by Oprah's badgering to say anything less than "We stand by our statements."

In 2003, the Dixie Chicks were in London performing while the Bush Administration geared up for an unprovoked war against Iraq. On stage, lead singer Natalie Maines says something to the effect that they (the Dixie Chicks) are ashamed that President Bush is from Texas. It's a pretty bold statement whenever Texans are irked with a warrior (the history of Texas is a fairly bloody one, after all) and immediately right-wing bloggers on the internet begin to launch a campaign ruin the career of the Dixie Chicks through boycotts of their music on the radio and sales of their c.d.s. Two years later, the Dixie Chicks struggle to create a new album and find a new audience.

That's what kills the movie for me. Shut Up And Sing was billed by most critics as a movie about the political controversy surrounding the Dixie Chicks. It was billed as a documentary that explored the effects of exercising freedom of speech and documenting the struggle the Dixie Chicks went through in losing their core audience. In that way, the movie fails. This is a movie more about the Dixie Chicks and how they make music than politics.

In the interest of full disclosure, I don't care about the Dixie Chicks. I'm not a fan of most country music, I liked the video for "Earl's Gotta' Die" (with Dennis Franz!), and I feel like the Dixie Chicks were screwed unjustly for exercising their freedoms which they should be free to exercise. At the end of the day, though, I've never cared either way about the Dixie Chicks; they're outside my sphere.

That said, the movie fails not only because I do not care about the music of the Dixie Chicks but because the documentary is left searching for things to say and does not bother to resolve elements that it places importance on. The movie, for example, sets up the stage for a great conflict over the Dixie Chicks as they return to making music in 2005 and 2006. And while ticket sales are slow, when they return to London to kick off their tour, the signs say "Sold Out." And their new album debuts at #1 on the Billboard charts, including the country music charts.

So, after belaboring the struggle to get their new music heard and presented, Natalie Maines essentially says "screw the country music stations, we're not going to be a country band anymore for a while." After that declaration, the movie spends more time looking at what is happening within the country music realm - ticket sales in Country territory for the new tour fare poorly - and then everything is resolved quite neatly with two clips stating that the Dixie Chicks are at the top of the charts, including the Country charts.


Yeah, the narrative does not make much sense. In a similar way, the film belabors the threat of assassination in Texas when Maines received a death threat. When she is not killed, there is no reaction from the group or fans. There's nothing said about any lingering impact. Did they run over the guy and know he'd never be a threat again?! Nope, they finish the Dallas show and don't mention it in the film again.

Directors Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck fill the movie with such gaps in logic or information. They do not make the movie accessible for those who are not a part of the Country Music scene. So, for example, they immediately leap into exploring a controversy with Toby Keith. I've no idea what the conflict was about firmly because it's not shown in the movie. Instead, it's mentioned and the Dixie Chicks (primarily Maines) react to it.

So, much of the movie is spent instead with the Dixie Chicks in the studio trying to figure out what their next album is going to be like. The most joy I took in this section was when I instantly recognized Red Hot Chili Peppers's drummer Chad Smith in the studio. Simple pleasures. The only moment of musical interest to me was when Robison or Maguire expressed concern about how her sound fit in - or didn't - on the new album. The idea that she might be irrelevant in a new sound for the band was interesting and compelling and after the issue is raised, it simply is not brought up again. As someone who has not heard the new album and does not have a comparative reference, I don't know if she is still relevant or how that was resolved.

On an essentially human front, near the end, one of the bandmembers begins crying and declaring that she is ready to give everything up to let Natalie live a normal life again. It's a compelling moment and one that is edited too short. That's a flaw throughout the movie, as is the quality of some of the video footage. Because the subject of the documentary could not be known until after it happened, the film relies on poor-quality footage, like the key moment Maines makes her on-stage statement.

As well, the movie periodically goes on a tangent that does not otherwise fit the movie. When Robison has her baby, for example, the movie kills a couple of minutes dealing with that. It has nothing to do with the political controversy and little to do with the creation of music for the band's new album. It's thrown in because it's something that happened to the Dixie Chicks.

Throughout the movie, new songs are being written, practiced, and tweaked. This becomes a constant and all of a sudden, the Dixie Chicks are simply singing. The movie suddenly ends with an otherwise indistinct song, like many of the other songs throughout the movie. So, the movie is going on and on and on and then poof! it ends without any fanfare.

The DVD has no bonus features to speak of, save the theatrical trailer.

In final analysis, this is a somewhat sloppy documentary, lacking the polish of Fahrenheit 9/11 (reviewed here!) or the amazing environmental documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Either of those are superior choices for anyone looking for poignant political documentaries loaded with information. There's not a better musical documentary coming right to mind, though the Red Hot Chili Peppers loaded the Greatest Hits DVD (reviewed here!) of their videos with extensive commentary and behind the scenes features on each video that it can be watched like a documentary.

For other documentaries, please check out my reviews of:
Wal-Mart: The High Cost Of Low Price
An Inconvenient Truth
George W. Bush: Faith In The White House


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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