Published September 13, 2006
Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks , has not changed her tune.
In a new documentary that premiered last night at the Toronto Film Festival, Maines says of President Bush: "What a dumbf—-."
The film, "Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing," received a standing ovation and thunderous applause. Directed by Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple with Cecilia Peck, daughter of late film legend Gregory Peck, "Shut Up and Sing" chronicles the group's journey since igniting a political firestorm in 2003 when they told a London audience they were embarrassed that Bush came from Texas.
Overnight the Dixie Chicks became politicized, and they've never looked back. The film ends with a return to the same London concert hall, where Maines repeats her original statement.
Maines told this reporter there never was a time when she thought of asking Kopple to edit her latest statement about Bush.
"Nope, we never would have done that," she said.
The Chicks were more than thrilled by the reception their film got last night, even though they were wary of press treatment. Unlike most post-screening dinners, theirs was pointedly a no-media event.
Nevertheless, when the film ended, I was the only reporter who got a chance to talk to Natalie, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire. They looked relieved that the audience had welcomed them so warmly, and each one said they thought the final result of Kopple’s work was terrific.
Indeed, when it’s released next month, "Shut Up and Sing" should be a gigantic hit for the Weinstein Company and seems destined for an Oscar nomination. Famed documentary director Albert Maysles, who attended the premiere, told me: “It’s just what we needed and with music.”
Despite featuring Maines’ propensity to slag on Bush, the film is a brilliant backstage look at a pop group in both transition and crisis.
Kopple also very smartly includes a lot of material featuring the families of the three women, so that we see lots of cute toddlers bopping around.
Because of that, Martie says at one point, the Dixie Chicks come off like the ultimate Midwestern, middle-of-the-road all-American girls.
What’s interesting about the Chicks and their catapult into politics is that it was entirely accidental. When Maines first took aim at Bush at a London concert, her one-line criticism was intended as a joke to get laughs and applause at a rock concert.
Like a lot of political activists, the women were thrust into spotlight reluctantly. In fact, right afterward, Martie — who made what seems like the greatest personal journey over the last three years — says as much.
The movie does trace without censure how the Chicks’ decision to never backtrack from their initial criticism of Bush hurts them financially. One of the permeating storylines of the film is their dealings with a corporate sponsor — Lipton Tea — and the country radio stations that immediately dropped their songs.
From then on, questions are raised internally — how to go on without country music behind them, and how to sell concert tickets in areas where they are unknown.
Kopple (and Peck, although I suspect mostly Kopple) cleverly moves among these different storylines with ease. She has a lot of time frames to deal with and explain, and they are handled nicely.
The toughest story is about the Chicks getting a death threat as they are heading out on stage at an arena. The ladies handle the situation with their customary sense of humor, but the film audience can sense the anxiety over the possibility of something actually going wrong (it doesn’t).
Of course, in the end, the Dixie Chicks' resolution to stay their course only makes them bigger than ever before. They concede the loss of their largely right-wing country audience, but in doing so, pick up a whole new audience as they cross over into rock and country-pop.
They turn into politicians as clever as John McCain, who makes a cameo defending them during a Senate hearing to determine if the group has been blackballed by country radio stations.
And then there is the music, which we certainly don’t want to forget. I have a feeling that "Shut Up and Sing" is going to sell a lot of albums for Sony. Kopple takes us into the recording and writing sessions, where we get to see the three women doing their "real" job so well.
Both Martie and Emily are highly accomplished musicians — the former on the fiddle, the latter on banjo — as well as gifted singers. And Maines' voice — her singing one, not the talking one — is highlighted in such a way that it’s almost embarrassing that she isn’t better known for that talent.
So will the Dixie Chicks ever just “shut up and sing”? It’s doubtful. After this movie hits, they will be even more visible as spokeswomen for a generation. Depending on how the midterm elections go, the Chicks could find themselves as important purveyors of a new kind of protest music, the female Bob Dylans of 2006.
And there are lots of worse things to be at time when most pop stars are simply bland commercial inventions. The Dixie Chicks are as real as it gets.