For fans of the great labor documentarian Barbara Kopple (American Dream, the magnificent Harlan County U.S.A.), the mere idea of Shut Up & Sing -- a film about the travails of the world-famous and multi-platinum-selling pop group the Dixie Chicks -- might sound like a perverse kind of sell-out. But there are some fascinating links between Kopple's previous works and her surprisingly moving and entertaining new film about the controversy that surrounded the Chicks after some impromptu remarks at a 2003 London concert on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
As singer Natalie Maines points out, most people probably don't know what she said to start such a ruckus, though the film tells us almost instantly: "We do not want this war, this violence. And we're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas."
This comment cost the Chicks plenty of airplay. But it also gave them plenty of nationwide notoriety. Thus, the main portion of the film consists of the ways in which the Chicks and band manager Simon Renshaw try to reclaim their market share while keeping their band (and brand) integrity intact.
As these three women juggle motherhood, image management, and the daily grind of songwriting and performing, Kopple's past sympathies with outspoken, no-bullshit women emerge once again, finding her heroine in the form of the raunchy, folksy, enormously entertaining Maines, a business-first leader and mouthpiece who, unlike her more cautious bandmates, is unafraid to riff on any subject. She never loses her cool or her edge, whether she's calling G.W. Bush a "dumb fuck," declaring on Howard Stern's show that she "won't wear panties until the war is over," or opining that an alleged stalker and assassin is "kinda cute."
In showing us the obstacles that arise when people who aren't supposed to have a thought about anything finally let something slip, Shut Up & Sing, incredibly, works some of the same turf as Kopple's most incendiary films. She's made one of the year's finest documentaries.
Opening Friday, December 1st, at Ridgeway Four