When a red-blooded, macho, flag-waving, Bush-voting American country-music fan looks at a gorgeous blond who also happens to make his kind of music, one doesn't normally expect him to pay particular attention to the actual substance of her conversation. Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines didn't think anyone would either, at first. Far from controversial once upon a time, the Chicks were simply playing to a London crowd on the eve of the Iraq war, and Maines happened to mention, off the cuff, that she and the audience were on the same side: Though the band hails from Texas, they weren't feeling too proud of the president who shared their home state. Had there been no such thing as the Internet or blogosphere, the remarks might have gone relatively unnoticed, but juiced up by the right-wing Website Free Republic (the same site that spurred Dan Rather's "Memogate"), Maines's comments led first to a national stir, then some boycotts, and now a movie, Shut Up & Sing.
In fact the movie is not quite the Bush-bashfest its publicity might lead you to believe; it's closer to the Metallica movie Some Kind of Monster than to Fahrenheit 9/11. Like Metallica, the Dixie Chicks begin the film as a multiplatinum band looking to move their sound forward on a new album, only to have external circumstances throw a wrench into the works and make things go in a vastly different direction than anyone expected. The political angle is the film's hook, but its real goal seems to be to persuade noncountry fans who support the band's politics that, hey, y'know, their music is pretty good too.
The idea that popular music should never be political is, on the face of it, idiotic. Would you tell Bob Dylan to just shut up and sing? Or System of a Down? John Lennon? Even country as a genre has not been free from impassioned ideals; Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash never shied away from populist issues, and Hank Williams Jr. and Charlie Daniels have been vocal in support of Republicans. The thing with the Dixie Chicks is that they were not a political band, and never intended to be; ironically, by going all out in bashing the band for one comment, protestors generated a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Maines became hardened in her defiance, still "Not Ready to Make Nice."
Those who are still mad at Maines aren't going to be won over; the right-wing demonstrators interviewed on-camera mostly come off as idiots, and Bill O'Reilly is shown advocating that the Dixie Chicks be slapped around, though no doubt he'd claim that to be amusing hyperbole. Most hilarious of the detractors, however, is Toby Keith, who defends himself against Maines's criticism of his songwriting skills by saying, "She said anyone can write 'Boot in Your Ass,' but she didn't!" Anyone can make a movie as bad as Broken Bridges, too, Toby, but thankfully these filmmakers didn't.
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Mostly we learn about the band's history. New fans might be surprised to learn that Maines wasn't the original lead singer, and there's some underlying tension because this younger, mouthier newcomer gets more attention than founding sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison. We see Maines argue (a lot) with her British manager Simon Renshaw. Rick Rubin shows up to add some wisdom and provide the usual amusing sight gag of his huge beard. The family lives of the Chicks get plenty of play (alas, fellas, all three are married). And we see how the controversy both helped and hurt, gaining the band national magazine covers and unprecedented crossover exposure, even as they were systematically shut out of country radio/TV and lost substantial U.S. ticket sales.
But there's no boo-hooing about it, except for when they receive their first death threat and have to start taking security really seriously.
As for the music itself, the songs played onscreen should make some new converts. Though still essentially country at heart, the tunes unmistakably show the involvement of people like Rubin and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, who add a rock sensibility that should make things go down easier than expected for listeners allergic to fiddles and banjos.
Also there's some behind-the-scenes footage from that nude photo shoot for Entertainment Weekly, though not as much as some might want. Look, to be honest, I could watch 93 minutes of Natalie Maines doing housework. That she has fantastic vocal chops is a major bonus, and her disdain for Mr. Bush is merely icing atop a significantly layered cake.