Part vanity project, part image rehabilitation, Shut Up & Sing charts the tumultuous last three years in the life of the Dixie Chicks with one eye focused on celebrating their steadfast courage of conviction and the other trained on reestablishing their persona as likeable family women and mothers. The jumping off point for Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck’s documentary is lead singer Natalie Maines’s comment during a 2003 London concert—taking place as the U.S. prepared to shock and awe Iraq—that “We’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas,” a casual (if nonetheless heartfelt) remark that would soon send the mega-selling country trio’s career into a tailspin. Kopple and Peck’s fly-on-the-wall approach to documenting their subjects, which includes a general refusal to partake in first-person interviews, gives the film an intimacy that naturally endears one to the women, who come across not as polarizing political firebrands but simply artists admirably determined to not back down from their beliefs even in the face of an unexpected, out-of-control firestorm.
Shut Up & Sing, however, isn’t content with simply painting the Chicks as strong-willed; it wants them to be case studies in 21st-century censorship. It’s a strategic mistake given that the directors, for inexplicable reasons, barely bother investigating the forces that compelled country radio (and its listeners) to boycott the group—provocative suggestions that media consolidation has placed power in the hands of an untrustworthy, politically-biased few seem on the right track but, frustratingly, are never fully elaborated. Via the band’s feud with jingoistic lunkhead Toby Keith and the vitriol spewed by right-wing blowhards Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, Kopple and Peck subtly reveal the sexism that seethes beneath the criticism, as if the Chicks’s refusal to toe the Bush-loving line was abhorrent to fans less because they were betraying their rural country roots and more because they were women daring to voice opinions. Yet without a persuasive indictment of corporate broadcast conglomerates as having perpetrated a Republican-backed censorship campaign, the film routinely flounders in its attempts to depict the group as completely innocent victims.
Despite the film’s gripping breakdown of the insanely nasty and excessive backlash (which included smashing CDs and labeling the women traitors), it’s portrait also makes clear that the group—as a phenomenally popular act reliant on the support of conservative Southern country fans—unintentionally made a terrible business decision by speaking out, and thus simply suffered the predictable economic consequences of their actions. Even with all the aggressively endearing “home with the family” footage meant to reconfigure their public image as regular folk just like you and me, as well as a manipulative non-chronological structure that only seems intended to disingenuously amplify tension over a 2003 death threat, Kopple and Peck’s fawning documentary convincingly argues that the Dixie Chicks didn’t deserve such malicious, chauvinistic, and threatening treatment. But some negative press, a slew of protests by redneck patriots, and a dip in record and tour ticket sales do not, in spite of Shut Up & Sing‘s best efforts, an American tragedy make.