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watch, and never shut up

August 31st, 2007     by Anna Leventhal     Comments

Oh my goodness, two features in one? What’s next, salt and vinegar potato chips? Jay-Z and Rihanna doing a song together? The mind boggles. Call it laziness or ingenuity, but I’ve decided to combine two weekly features into one consideration of a movie about music… kind of.

I finally got around to watching Shut Up and Sing, Barbara Kopple’s documentary about the Dixie Chicks and the uproar surrounding an offhand comment singer Natalie Maines made at a concert in 2003. Before I go into detail, I should mention that I was never really a Dixie Chicks fan - in fact they barely registered on my cultural radar before the whole “I’m ashamed George Bush is from Texas” debacle. But I am a huge fan of documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple - her 1976 doc Harlan County USA is one of the most astounding and heartbreaking films I’ve ever seen (and she made it when she was, like, 12. Okay, 22. But still). So I went into the film curious to see what she would do with a story about pop music, big hair, freedom of speech, and the polemic beast that is America today. Suffice it to say I was not disappointed.

The film is built around the aforementioned comment Natalie Maines made between songs at a concert in London, England - she expressed displeasure at US foreign policy, and then said “We’re ashamed that President Bush is from [our home territory] Texas,”. The fallout from the comment included hate mail, mass burnings of Dixie Chicks CDs (turns out CDs don’t burn so well, so we get to see lots of Middle American workboots stomping on them), radio boycotts, and even a death threat. Kopple’s deft editing and compiling of footage creates what is in fact a fascinating portrait of the media spin machine, and what exactly is meant by “free speech” and “patriotism” (and whether or not the two are in fact totally irreconcilable). There is the usual predictable and disturbing woman-hating, where the Chicks get called sluts and traitors, and several news commentators (guess which network - coughfoxcough) suggest that what they really need is a good slapping around. You really get to see the opposite ends of the American political and cultural spectrum in all its gory glory. As one of the Chicks, Martie Maguire, sums up near the end of the film, “It had to be from us - it was perfect. It had to be the unlikely voice from what looked like the conservative heart of America.”

One feature of the film that was a kind of subtle pleasure for me was how the bond between the three Chicks really shows itself - I don’t want to get all squishy and talk about Sisterhood (though two of the Chicks are in fact sisters), but you really get to feel that they care deeply about each other, more than they care about stardom or record sales. The film never attempts to play them off each other and have them compete for our attention - unlike interviewer Diane Sawyer, who in one sequence is clearly trying to instigate a catfight between the Chicks (nothing boosts ratings like a good Jerry-Springer-style hair-pullin’). Clicheed as it sounds, you do get a sense of these pop stars as real people. Maines herself comes off as a really great character - sharp and funny and sarcastic and, well, shameless. More people should see her stuffing a party sandwich in her mouth as she looks at a photo of the man who threatened her life and comments “he’s pretty cute, don’t you think?”

Unfortunately the film also contains quite a lot of padding - long sequences that break up the saga of the Bush comment and its fallout, where we see the Chicks recording their new album, hanging out with their hubbies, and having more babies than I can keep track of. Which is all very nice for them, but frankly boring for anyone but the hardest-core Dixie Chicks fan. But heck, that’s what DVD scene-selections are made for.

I suggest you buck the trend of right-wing American radio stations everywhere and go listen to the Dixie Chicks’ song Not Ready to Make Nice (and why not request it from your local radio station if you can). It may not be in heavy rotation on my jukebox, but it now has a place in my heart.

Tags: features, film fridays, picks from planet venus

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