Hear them roar: `Shut Up & Sing' is a credit to sisterhood

December 08, 2006|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

The enthralling, inspiring Dixie Chicks documentary, Shut Up & Sing! opening today at the Charles Theatre, puts us right in the middle of the action. We're on stage with guitarist and lead singer Natalie Maines as she vamps between numbers on the opening night of a European tour and tells a cheering, laughing, anti-war British audience that she's ashamed the Chicks' president is from Texas.

The rest of the movie is about how the country-music radio establishment and fan base beat on the group as if they were a trio of pinatas.

What's wonderful is not that the women don't crack, but that when they do, what spills out is more amazing than anything they bottled up inside. Catastrophe doesn't focus them; it doesn't defeat them, either. It makes their fellow feeling, generous spirit, game intelligence, and fierce, rooted lyricism gloriously manifest in everything they do.

FOR THE RECORD - The Sun critic's rating for the documentary Shut Up & Sing was omitted from yesterday's review in Movies Today. It was an A+.
The Sun regrets the errors.

The movie brings back that old slogan, "Sisterhood is powerful," as the soul of true sorority flows among Maines and the two band-mates who are actually biological siblings, banjoist Emily Robison and fiddler Martie Maguire. But that's only part of it. The message I get from the movie is that art is more powerful than anything.

When the group's manager, the British-born Simon Renshaw, goes backstage after that first night and tells them "mission accomplished," he provides a funny-eerie premonition of what Bush would notoriously proclaim on an aircraft carrier a few months later. Renshaw also predicts that the publicity flap will redound to the women's credit.

Despite the distress that culminates in a Dallas death threat and commercial setbacks that plague the group to this day, Renshaw may have been right. The Dixie Chicks wind up in a better place as singers and songwriters, as women, as friends, and as Dixie gals who are also representative Yanks.

Robison and Maguire don't feel it's their place to speak for Maines, but they don't let any air show between them, either. Maines may be the funny, mouthy one, but she's no figurehead: She puts her music where her mouth is. And Robison and Maguire are far more than mere sidekicks. You see how the group's creative compost comes from everything they share, from intimate revelations to artistic refinements. Everything counts, including the early family rivalries that led Robison to the banjo and Maguire to the fiddle. Robison and Maguire go way beyond being backups, but they're willing to let some Dixie Chicks tunes develop as Maines' personal statements.

All three are as marvelously tight as mates as they are as musicians. In a stunning testament to family values, their loving, independent spouses help steady them in 2005 as they bear and raise children and take their next giant step: writing, performing and recording their heart-stabbing, bone-rattling album, Taking the Long Way.

On one level, the filmmakers, the long-great Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, U.S.A. and American Dream), and her co-director, Cecelia Peck, were lucky. They set out to record the Dixie Chicks on their worldwide tour and wound up witnessing an imploding subculture. But it's a tribute to their dexterity and wisdom that they kept on top of the story and didn't leave until it reached a fitting destination: the artistic high point of the album and the existential high point of these women knowing that for all their emotional and intellectual scars they could say, like the grizzled guys in The Wild Bunch, they wouldn't have it any other way.

Kopple and Peck present the women without inflation or romanticism - that's one of the chief virtues super-craftsmen like these two can get out of a fly-on-the-wall technique. They see the Dixie Chicks in the round: Joking with sass and saltiness about the music-industry casting couch or special ways to make their fans ecstatic, floundering for a position that can reconcile them with their old public without humiliating themselves, talking frank about fertility techniques, reading supermarket weeklies as they wait for Emily to have twins, discussing the ins and outs of HBO top comic Bill Maher's position on the Iraq War. And out of this joint existence, as anarchic and improvisatory as that of any group of working moms, they make transcendent music together.

The Dixie Chicks may never regain their prolonged eminence on the country charts. However, the art and entertainment value of this movie (and of their latest album) is off the charts in the best way. Without minimizing the pain these girls are feeling, Kopple and Peck communicate the thrilling complexity of American artists' relations to industry, promotions, fans, producers, image-makers and agents. And this sometimes rancorous mess still gives American mass entertainment a vibrancy and richness unparalleled by any brand of pop anywhere else in the world.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.