An advance showing of the Dixie Chicks documentary, Shut Up and Sing, packed the house Thursday night (Nov. 2) at Nashville’s Belcourt Theater. Co-sponsored by Music Row Democrats and the Weinstein Company, which distributes the film, the event sold out a day in advance, a spokesman for the theater said. Proceeds from the $10-a-ticket screening were earmarked for Harold Ford Jr., the Democratic candidate from Tennessee for the U. S. Senate.
Those who hated the Chicks because lead singer Natalie Maines’ publicly scourged President George W. Bush on the eve of the Iraq war will find plenty more in the documentary to fuel their anger. Although it shows the trio somewhat dazed and disconcerted after they were hit by the first wave of criticism, it also demonstrates their growing defiance after it becomes evident their conventional attempts at damage control aren’t working.
The audience’s partisanship showed through in the chorus of boos that greeted President Bush’s upon his first appearance in the film. On a newscast, when Bush tells a reporter that the Chicks shouldn’t get their feelings hurt because free speech runs both ways, Maines snaps at the TV screen, “What a dumb f***! You’re a dumb f***.”
The most interesting figure in the documentary is Simon Renshaw, the Chicks manager, who has the comically impossible task of trying to mollify the unruly trio even as he struggles to rein them in from self-destructive impulses. Just as the backlash against the Chicks is beginning to swell, he observes playfully — and, as it turns out, prophetically, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could get ’em burning CDs.”
When country radio turns against the Chicks, Renshaw notes with exasperation, “They’ll keep playing Tracy Lawrence, who’s a wife-beater.” (Lawrence was convicted of spousal abuse in 1998.) Renshaw chortles that when the Chicks complain about where he’s booked them, he pulls out an early picture of them performing in the produce department of a grocery store. “I didn’t book that,” he says, “they did.”
The film covers Maines’ head-to-head confrontation with Toby Keith and includes a scene in which she is goaded into wearing her now-famous “F. U. T. K.” T- shirt. When the Chicks’ critics pop up wearing “F. U. D. C.” insignia, Maines chirps, “Wonder what they’ve got against Dick Cheney?”
Much of the footage is devoted to the recording and marketing of the Chicks’ current album, Taking the Long Way. And there are tranquil scenes of the singers at home with their husbands and children.
More impressive than the film’s politics, which tend to be personal rather than programmatic, is the degree of intimacy directors Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck achieve. It is almost as if the Chicks and the people surrounding them have forgotten they are on camera. Kopple even follows a hugely pregnant Emily Robison into the hospital for an examination. After her twins are delivered, Robison holds one in each arm and bleats, “Sore nipples are on the way.”
Shortly before a concert in Dallas, Maines receives a death threat that clearly unnerves her, as well as the rest of the troupe. When detectives show her a picture of the man suspected of having made the threat and assure her that he is being monitored, she observes sadly, “He’s kind of cute. He really is.”
Although it was Maines alone who sparked the firestorm, sister Chicks Emily Robison and Martie Maguire never seem annoyed with her. Indeed, at one point near the end of the film, Maguire begins crying because she says she fears Maines will always blame herself for the debacle, even though “it was the best thing that happened to our career.”
The tone of the documentary lightens as it shows President Bush’s approval numbers plummeting as a result of the war and the Chicks getting their second wind, even as their album and concert ticket sales falter.
Shut Up and Sing will open commercially in Nashville Nov. 10.