New doc on The Dixie Chicks shares their side of the nasty controversy
"Just so you know, we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas." If you know who uttered that now-famous phrase from a stage at a London concert hall in 2003, then you might think you know everything about The Dixie Chicks, the Texas trio who, on country-music radio and everywhere else, are the top-selling female band of all time. But Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck’s new documentary about the Chicks, Shut Up and Sing, follows the trio of down-home cowgirl pickers-cum-stadium superstars from their bake-sale beginnings, through their superstardom, to where they never thought they’d be – with their careers burned up in the fires of an American political controversy.
Shut Up and Sing (the doc’s title is taken from one of thousands of threatening letters they received from former fans) is an intimate portrait of three women who are joined not only by their moneymaking music machine, but by an enduring friendship that, amazingly, withstood public scrutiny, boycotts, death threats and faltering sales. It follows the Chicks through their darkest hours, through songwriting sessions and tour-strategy meetings, and back into the limelight as a brand-new band that writes trenchant songs about what it means to be a woman, a mother and a thinking adult in these troubled times.
Kopple, one of America’s most proficient documentarists, first won an Oscar for her doc Harlan County, U.S.A. Her most famous doc is, arguably, the Woody Allen tour picture Wild Man Blues, and so she knows how to make artists trust her camera – especially artists used to hostile public scrutiny.
"We try to keep [the camera] away from the people so that it’s not in the middle of what’s happening," she says. "And what’s important to me in the making of any film we make is that something is happening, people’s lives are changing, they’re in crisis, and what they’re doing, or thinking about, or saying, or planning, or strategizing, is so much more important than a camera."
Kopple says that for her, Shut Up and Sing is not only about a band, but about the current state of free speech in America.
"This was the journey of three incredible women who we watched grow, bond together, had babies, keeping their lives in balance, using this terrible crisis of boycotts and death threats and their CDs being crushed to make music and write music that came from inside their soul. These women would not be silenced even though there was this huge campaign to silence them that came from within [their own country]."
The doc’s most startling aspect is the intimacy with which the camera captures the Chicks’ business dealings as they take control of all the details of their tours, marketing strategies and the production of their new album.
Says Kopple: "They wanted this story told. They trusted us, and believed in us, and it was no holds barred. They control everything, they call the shots, but they really wanted people to see the way things really are… and I think their enduring, powerful friendship is what makes it work. It makes them who they are, and it’s more important than anything else."
Shut Up and Sing