November 25, 2006

MOVIES: Shut Up & Sing (Barbara Kopple & Cecilia Peck, 2006)

During a 2003 concert in London, Natalie Maines, lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, announced to the audience that "we're ashamed that the President is from Texas." Kopple & Peck's documentary follows the fallout from that comment over the next three years.

It takes a few days for the news to get back to the US, but when it does, reaction is instant. The group's current single (ironically, it was "Travelin' Soldier," a heartbreak-of-wartime-separation song) was yanked from almost every country radio station, and their album sales plummeted.

Maines and her colleagues don't seem at first to realize quite how serious a mess they've gotten into; they seem genuinely surprised that anyone would be offended, and expect that a simple apology will clear things right up. I couldn't help but wonder how they'd managed to reach such levels of success in country music while remaining so clueless as to who was buying their records.

When that first apology doesn't instantly smooth the waters, the group -- Maines in particular -- become actively hostile towards their former fans, who they see as having betrayed them. Maines takes every opportunity to demonstrate her anger and increasing contempt for the country fans. That continues to this day; when the band released its new album earlier this year, the first single was a piece of in-your-face defiance called "Not Ready to Make Nice."

Maines had my sympathy at the beginning of the movie; I can certainly understand the frustration that led to her comments, and we've all said something that we might later wish we hadn't said. But as the story progresses and Maines grows increasingly obstinate and willful in her insistence on re-opening the wound, she becomes much less sympathetic.

Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, the other two members of the band, are background figures for most of the movie; Maines is the lead singer and the public face of the group. I wish that Kopple and Peck could have gotten Robison and Maguire to talk more openly about their feelings in this situation; I can't help but think that their feelings about Maines' behavior are a lot more complicated than the supportive platitudes they mouth in this movie.

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