A Revealing Peep at the Dixie Chicks

In "Shut Up and Sing," fans show their support of lead singer Natalie Maines during the flap over her anti-Bush remark. (Weinstein Co.)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 17, 2006

Politics aside, "Shut Up and Sing" is a first-class "inside showbiz" documentary, following a hugely successful pop group stuck in the middle of a public relations fiasco and struggling to keep its act together and its career intact.

It's what "Entertainment Tonight" ought to be, instead of a part of the PR process itself, for the film treats that complex business like news and respects it enough to report on it honestly. You watch as wizard group manager Simon Renshaw masterminds a series of offensives meant to keep the Dixie Chicks alive after lead singer Natalie Maines's impromptu anti-Bush gibe in 2003.

Among Renshaw's tactics: searching for appropriate concert venues; changing the Chicks' image from country to a harder, more pop, contempo styling; hiring new PR advisers; nursing and cajoling the depressed performers; testifying before Congress; arranging and supervising mag covers (we're backstage when the decaled young women are photographed nude for Entertainment Weekly); and so forth. Renshaw is, more or less, the hero of the crisis.

And why is it a crisis? Because, famously, Maines, speaking before a London concert audience, announced, "We're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas," just as the American ground action in Iraq was beginning.

One of the excellent attributes of "Shut Up and Sing" is that it lets the cards fall where they may and really doesn't try to spin the Chicks themselves. It's quite possible, then, to watch the film and come to the conclusion that Natalie Maines has a big mouth. Spectacularly talented, the young singer is also a spectacular blowhard, and documentarian Barbara Kopple almost subversively focuses on Maines blabbering away at meetings without a serious thought in her head, no impulse control anywhere in sight, and, for some reason, always supine, as if her great status grants her the right to encounter the world from bed.

As for the other two Chicks, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, they are far more guarded in their accessibility to the camera; at times their support of the loudmouthed Maines seems somewhat hedged. Possibly they have a reason for their ambiguity: Really, truly having made it in the biggest of big times, they watched as sales of albums and concert tickets shrank visibly (and disturbingly), as did radio airplay, in the wake of Maines's off-the-cuff comment.

Kopple (credited as "co-director" with Cecilia Peck) is a superb documentarian; she won Oscars for her features "Harlan County, U.S.A." and "American Dream." You feel in this film the strain -- it's a healthy strain, I think -- between her liberal politics and her nose for the truth. She could have represented the Chicks as martyrs to right-wing blowhard anger; but that's too simple. Instead she takes us inside big-dollar professional entertainment and lets us see ego and stupidity and self-indulgence at play just as fiercely as artistry.

Shut Up and Sing (93 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated R for language.

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