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Clear and Present Danger


Shut Up & Sing

Barbara Kopple, Cecilia Peck, USA, 2006

Rating: 4.0


Posted: December 3, 2006

By Kevin Forest Moreau

No matter which side of the political divide you call home, Shut Up & Sing -- Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck's engrossing documentary about the Dixie Chicks' infamous 2003 Bush-bashing incident and its aftermath -- isn't likely to change your mind. Which is too bad, because there's a lesson here even for supporters of the Iraq war (and for non-Chicks fans).

Although the film is undoubtedly slanted in the country trio's favor, it's chilling to watch fans turn on them, burning and trampling CDs and even (in one instance) issuing a death threat -- all because of a relatively innocuous comment. (There isn't one late-night comic who hasn't said far worse things about President George W. Bush hundreds of times -- but supposedly they get a pass because unlike the Chicks, they didn't smear W. on foreign soil. Never mind that the British citizenry was already largely and steadfastly opposed to the war, and a comment that the Dixie Chicks were ashamed Bush hails from their home state wasn't likely to sway the minds of any fence-sitters who might happen to be in the audience -- at a country music concert in London.)

It's hard not to feel for the Chicks as a media frenzy erupts, its tour sponsor Lipton Tea gets skittish and country radio turns its collective back -- and not because you feel for the financial future of these attractive multimillionaires; singer Natalie Maines even admits that "the incident" is the best thing to happen to their career in ages, leading to an interview with Diane Sawyer and an Entertainment Weekly cover shoot. No, the Dixie Chicks are not a prerequisite for life, and their fans are free to stop supporting them if they choose. What elicits our sympathy is how the film illustrates that Bush and the war act as the ultimate polarizing issues, the two topics on which it's seeming impossible to simply agree to disagree, and woe betide anyone who gets on the wrong side of that line.

Politics aside, Shut Up & Sing offers an intriguing look at the working life of a multi-platinum country act, whether on tour, in damage-control mode (the scenes with band manager Simon Renshaw are among the film's most fascinating) or writing and recording new material. The latter glimpses are especially interesting as the band sits down with Semisonic's Dan Wilson and producer Rick Rubin, and talks inter-band politics with Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith. (One perhaps unintended side effect: The new songs resonate and stick in the listener's head better than they do on CD.)

And the Dixie Chicks themselves aren't unafraid to show themselves as less than perfect, wrestling emotionally with the aftermath of the incident, even as they grow ever closer as a unit. (It's probably also unintentional, but Maines comes off as a bit high-minded and annoying, which is closer to ceding the other side's point of view than most of the Chicks' detractors seem to come.)

But ultimately, it's impossible to separate the film from its political context. Shut Up & Sing proves gripping (and more than a little frightening) for its glimpse into the red-hot issues of rabid ideology and freedom of speech that still resonate today, more than three years after Maines' comment. You leave the theater wishing more people would see it and perhaps sheepishly say to the person next to them, "You know, maybe we did overreact a little."

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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