Shut Up and Sing makes a good case for … well, you know what, I'm not sure what it makes a case for, but whatever it is, the case it makes is a good one. The blurb on the Netflix disc holder says the movie "centers on … The Dixie Chicks and their nationwide vilification" after singer Natalie Maines said something snippish about Bush in a concert. Watching the movie, you can see the reaction of some of the country music fans who turned their back on the Chicks, and there are occasional mentions of the damage the controversy did to the band's performance on the record charts. (This could have been focused on in more depth … there is a brief segment from congressional hearings about conglomerate control of radio, and a few interviews with DJs and station managers who quit playing Dixie Chick records, but, as is the case throughout the film, nothing of real depth is offered.)
The movie works best as an intimate look at the artists. The filmmakers seem to have had very close access to the Chicks, and the women come across in terrific fashion, funny, with great camaraderie. Although sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire started the band, it's Maines, the lead singer who was added to the band some years into its history, who gets the most attention … yet the sisters seem mostly happy with the situation. And while Maines is the one with the "Big Mouth," her fellow Chicks stick by her, presenting a united front to the world at large that is touching and inspiring.
I wanted more clear analysis, so in that regard, Shut Up and Sing fell a bit short for me, but I may have been expecting something that wasn't intended. Or rather, whatever the intentions, what comes across is more a study of three working female artists than a simple presentation of public events. And that study is very good indeed.
My biggest problem with the movie is tangential … it's not something that comes up in the movie, really, but I can't help thinking about it. The Dixie Chicks make fine music … I don't think they are the best country musicians of all time, or the best anything of all time … I like some of their songs, but my taste runs more to Alison Krauss on the one hand or Dolly Parton on the other. But the movie makes the point that the Chicks' music transformed into something more … pop? … when they felt that the country audience had abandoned them. We don't get enough music in the movie to make any useful judgments about how that transformation worked out … if you know their music, you can decide for yourself if going from "Goodbye Earl" to "Not Ready to Make Nice" is progress or not, but you won't be able to figure it out from the movie, which never makes any claim to being a concert film. The thing is this: I am always concerned when I think art is being evaluated more on its "proper" cultural position than on its quality as a work of art. And I can't help wondering how many people have become Dixie Chick fans not because they fell in love with the music, but because they fell in love with that lady who dissed George Bush. I'm not talking about the fans who know the words to all the songs, I'm talking about the people whose first real exposure to the band came when the controversy raised its head. Just as a lot of people decided then and there that they no longer liked the Dixie Chicks, you just know there were people who said "I'm gonna go out and buy me some Dixie Chicks albums to show I support free speech." Well, free speech is a great thing, and Dixie Chick albums are good things, but I'd be happier if I thought people were buying Dixie Chicks albums because they thought the albums were good, instead of buying them because Natalie Maines said a mean thing about Bush. Because deciding you like the Dixie Chicks because of what Maines said is just as stupid as deciding you don't like them for the same reason.
Whatever … I'm nitpicking over a movie that was enjoyable. These three women really are great fun to watch as they interact. The movie has a real woman's perspective, which may go without saying (it's about three women and directed by two other women), but it's a welcome change to see women musicians offering up their own vision of what it means to be artists in a collective. I'm not going to run out and buy some Dixie Chick music … the stuff I already have is good enough for me … but the next time I listen to them, I'll see them in my mind, and I'll like what I see.