Shut Up & Sing wants to give us a backstage pass to a publicity crisis, but the more interesting story that shines through is about the enormous power that even a travel-sized lead singer can wield over a band. The story begins in 2003 when Natalie Maines, the frosted blonde frontwoman of the Western swing-pop threesome The Dixie Chicks, makes an off-the-cuff to a London crowd about being embarrassed by Bush. The insult bounces around the globe, lands on redneck radio and results in a sturdy boycott that sinks plans for a tour. Maines is urged to back-peddle. Instead, she tries to spin the 'traitor' label into a new, quasi-edgy image for the hitherto-wholesome group. For fickle fans, it's a bridge too far. "You're giving the American public too much credit," her publicist warns. Meanwhile, the other Chicks fume. Fiddle player Martie Maguire wants to chick-scratch Maines' eyes out for gambling with their careers. At one point, in a moment that's almost off-camera, she mumbles: "I'm not gonna try to dig you out."
But Maines knows she is irreplaceable -- the Chicks opened supermarkets before her -- and she doesn't sweat vague threats of ouster. Everything she does, from the way she interrupts meetings with daydreamy musings to her snap decision to cut ties with a wavering sponsor, exposes her as the group's 800-pound gorilla. The film's best moments occur when she pipes up with an opinion, and the other Chicks bite their tongues. As the pressure increases, Maines begins to flirt with severing the group's connection to country music, which she's not culturally wedded to. This leads to a hilarious scene where she drags the other Chicks to the Maharishi-like pad of music impresario Rick Rubin for a musical powwow. Maguire, who was baptized in bluegrass, not Beastie Boys, is lost at sea. She eventually blurts out "What is our role?," prompting Rubin to make a cryptic statement about finding the best sound, 'whatever it may be'. He probably said that to several Chili Peppers drummers before they were axed.
The standoff with country music eventually leads to the old bulldoze-the-records routine. Is there a company that rents bulldozers just for the purpose of idiotic protests? Once again, the older Chicks go into a panic while Maines remains cool-headed under pressure. Hearing about the boycott against them, Maguire lets out another great mumble: "It would be too bad if our careers end." Somewhere around this time, Maines also ends up embroiled in a surreal, Hee Haw-ready feud with a ten-gallon retard called Toby Keith, who uses the controversy to shave off publicity for his own singing career, and whose defiantly ignorant snarl seems a true face of the audience that abandons the Chicks. There's one clip of Keith giving his opinion on the controversy, and it's a keeper. The film also kills a lot of time by flipping through other media blurbs and soundbites, with commentators sounding off that Maines should be "slapped around" among other things. She's eventually served with a written death threat, intercepted by her security guards, which she reads to the camera following her around.
If there's one area where the film trips up, it's the decision to give short-shrift to the mechanics that go into managing a group in the middle of a publicity storm. We see the Chicks and their manager watching from an office when tickets go on sale for a tour. Within minutes, they can see on the computers that they are not selling like they should be. Decisions are made to cut this place and add that place. Meetings are held to discuss how to brand the tour for Canadians, who are seen as being more receptive to the new, liberal-friendly incarnation of the Chicks. There are strategy sessions about which talk show to go on, which magazines will be receptive, and so on. I could have sat for another half hour of these kind of details, which don't typically make the cut of tour documentaries. The film is a little eager to get back to the personal drama. Also, some direct interviews might have added something to the film's fly-on-the-wall format.
Even if you don't find the trials and tribulations of this band interesting, you'd still have to tip your hat to a film that so eagerly marries honky-tonk music with the R-rated language that it usually sings about, without actually singing. Modern country music -- the mainstream, radio-playable kind, anyway -- arrives in stores only after having been put through a strainer to rid it of anything that might be vaguely offensive to Bible Belt sensibilities. Maines is a generation removed from those conventions, however, and seems eager to buck them. At one point in the film, while jokingly playing to the idea that her career as a singer might be over, she tests her mettle as a songwriter: "I gave a lot of blowjobs, but didn't kiss any ass." She also comes up with the film's most salient line, one that sums up her position on the whole controversy: "Now that we've fucked ourselves, we have a responsibility to keep fucking ourselves." That should be good enough for the longneck-and-jukebox crowd, don't you think?Related: James' TIFF interview with directors Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck.