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Shut Up & Sing Review

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Documentary following US rock/country trio Dixie Chicks between 2003 and 2006. On the eve of the Iraq conflict, at a London concert, singer Natalie Maines announces, “We’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.” A huge backlash follows

★★★★

What could have beenjust another music documentary turns into a fascinating examination of America’s media and record industry in this timely film from Oscar-winning director Barbara Kopple with Cecilia Peck. Following the Dixie Chicks both back- and onstage, Shut Up & Sing is, from the outset, an enjoyable gig film and an inspiring portrait of strong women in business — impressively, the trio boast seven children between them and three successful marriages. But the film would be nothing remarkable without the now-legendary anti-Bush comment from Dixie Chick Natalie Maines, and the ensuing storm among their fans and across the US as a whole.

Maines isn’t a political spokesperson: she’s a charismatic, outspoken, liberal-minded singer — something the rock world is well accustomed to. But she is also a Country & Western performer and the darling of the conservative Bible belt, who evidently expected her to share their views. In a frenzy of post 9/11 patriotism, her fans became outraged when she made it clear she didn’t.

Kopple cuts from jaw-dropping news footage showing hyped-up Americans ceremonially burning the group’s CDs to scenes of the Dixies and their manager reacting with a mixture of concern, disbelief and defiance. As the band debate a response that will placate the media and save their plummeting sales, they also struggle with the desire to put the finger up to a world that has suddenly turned against them. Well, Maines does anyway; her bandmates Emily Robison and Martie Maguire are a little more circumspect, but unfailingly supportive of Maines even when drawn into a whirlwind not of their making. But one of the frustrating elements of the film’s fly-on-the-wall style is the lack of direct questioning; the singers never go into great detail about their political views.

Still, perhaps that’s the point. This is not so much about politics as it is about the bandwagon mentality that sees a group scapegoated for a casual comment that could easily have gone unnoticed. Watching the film now also brings up an interesting, if rather less laudable, comparison with none other than Britain’s Jade Goody. Message to any nation’s sweetheart — watch your mouth. Or, in the case of the Dixies, Shut Up & Sing.

Exposing almost as much small-mindedness as Borat did, this provides food for thought as well as some darned good ditties.