When Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple and her directing partner Cecilia Peck first approached the Dixie Chicks about making a documentary on the band, lead singer Natalie Maines had not yet uttered the words that would transform her and her bandmates into country music outcasts and free speech activists. They had even turned down the offer of the documentary that would become Shut Up & Sing, out this week in theaters.Then Maines said from a London stage, "Just so you know, we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas," ten days before the US-led invasion of Iraq. The American press got hold of the news, and Maines, along with Emily Robison and Martie Maguire the best-selling female group in history quickly became the target of a conservative smear campaign usually reserved for sitting presidents. The firestorm that surrounded the quote fallout included protests, CD burnings, country radio blacklisting, and death threats by those who demanded, "Shut up and sing or [your] life will be over."
"We were really disappointed," Kopple says of the initial offer's rejection. "But then a few days later, they made the comment and we were like, 'We have to do this.'"
The Chicks were concerned with how they'd be represented in a documentary. But Kopple insists, once they were given the go-ahead, "[We were] free to tell whatever story we wanted," without interference.
After sifting through hundreds of hours of archival footage, as well as footage filmed by Kopple and Peck during the recording of the Chicks' fourth album, Taking the Long Way, the filmmakers opted to focus on what initially drew them to the Chicks in the first place: Maines, Robison, and Maguire are powerful women; mothers first, wives second, musicians third.
"One of the significant [aspects of] the film that I just loved, that inspired me and changed me as a filmmaker, is their sense of friendship and how strong they are, how strong their bond is," Kopple says. "This would've pulled anyone else apart, but they just had each other's backs."
That might be true but Shut Up & Sing depicts Maines' stubborn, justified righteousness driving the controversy's management. They demonstrated an almost startling savvy when it came to manipulating their public image with media coverage like an Entertainment Weekly cover of them naked and covered in words like "Dixie Sluts" and "Traitor."
"I think they are women who are extremely hands-on," Kopple explains. "Not only about their music, but their business and business strategy, too. They want to be included in everything."
It has to be asked, then: Should Shut Up & Sing be considered part of that business strategy? "No. I don't think they thought the documentary would show in theaters," Kopple insists. "I think they thought maybe it would be like home movies. They had no idea, no idea."
In fact, the Chicks didn't see a final cut until the end of July this year. Cunning strategy or not, a recent mainstream media ban on advertising the film has only played further into their hands. On October 26, NBC refused to air Shut Up & Sing ads because they disparaged President Bush.
"I think that it's pretty revealing since the film is about censorship and free speech," Kopple says. "It shows us how delicate and how troubled we are as a country and how we have to speak up."
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