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Shut Up & Sing

This 2006 documentary on the hullabaloo surrounding the Dixie Chicks' supposedly un-American stance during the early days of the Iraq war covers a lot of bases. It's an attempt to repair the damage done to their reputation after lead singer Natalie Maines told a London audience that the Chicks were "ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas." It also serves to promote the group's album Taking the Long Way, and it certainly succeeded — the Dixie Chicks won all five of the Grammys for which the record was nominated, and sales jumped over 800 percent in the days following the awards. It also attempts to expose the ability of the corporations that own large swaths of the radio airwaves to sabotage a group by telling its affiliate stations not to play the group's music — an action that resulted in Congressional hearings, during which Sen. Barbara Boxer remarked that it sent "a chilling message to people that they ought to shut up and not express their views."

What Shut Up & Sing illustrates most vividly is that both entertainment and politics are chaotic and unpredictable, and how easily the American public can be manipulated by those who know how to work the news media. When the brouhaha began, directors Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, U.S.A.) and Cecilia Peck lucked out that the Chicks already had a small crew filming them for videologs that they intended to use on their website, offering an unusual glimpse into the eye of the hurricane. We see that Maines' remark was off-the-cuff, intended purely for humor and to pander to a British crowd at the height of anti-Bush protests in England, and that none of the three — Maines, Emily Robison, and Martie Maguire — took the early U.S. reaction very seriously. We also get to see the band in heated discussions with their management team about how they should respond after two extreme right-wing groups mount email campaigns insisting that radio stations boycott their music, during which Maines repeatedly insists that if country radio won't play them, then they won't cater to country radio anymore. The contrast between the three band members, who are shown playing to sell-out crowds, rehearsing and recording, then returning to their lives with their husbands and children, and the footage of pundits like Bill O'Reilly calling them "callow, foolish women who deserve to be slapped around" is striking. Rare is the opportunity to see such a detailed document on the way that the media can create a controversy almost wholly unconnected to the original event, stoked and fueled by partisan groups and the news industry to such a point that it results in death threats and CD burnings. Through it all, the Dixie Chicks keep their heads held high and draw inspiration from the experience to write their own songs for the very first time, creating an album of strikingly beautiful music with raw, pointed lyrics:

I made my bed, and I sleep like a baby
With no regrets and I don't mind saying
It's a sad sad story that a mother will teach her daughter
That she ought to hate a perfect stranger
And how in the world can the words that I said
Send somebody so over the edge
That they'd write me a letter saying that I better
Shut up and sing or my life will be over?

The Weinstein Co. and Genius Products offers a curiously lean DVD release of Shut Up & Sing, with a terrific full-frame transfer (1.33:1) and a great stereo audio track that manages to mix handheld video sound, concert roar, musical backtracking, and dialogue without any of it getting lost in translation. The disappointment is that there are no bonus features save the theatrical trailer — no commentary track, no extra deleted footage, nothing. Considering the impact of the event that the film documents, as well as the band's Grammy nominations and an Oscar nomination for the film in the Best Documentary category (not to mention the miles of unused footage that must exist), you'd think the Weinsteins would have offered a few juicy extras. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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