Pop Culture

‘Shut Up & Sing’ is right in tune

The Dixie Chicks would probably think of themselves as mothers first, then musicians.

They became accidental political figures — then they had to figure out how to reinvent themselves.

“Shut Up & Sing,” a documentary from directors Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, follows the country trio after lead singer Natalie Maines’ offhanded on-stage comment that the group was ashamed that President Bush was a fellow Texan.

It’s not that the remark itself was shocking or even terribly provocative. But the backlash from the country music industry, from the South, from the core of the Chicks’ fan base was just stunning in its vitriol and hypocrisy. The same people who are so proud to live in a country where freedom of speech is an inalienable right wanted to silence these women — and worse.

Many complained that Maines shouldn’t have said such a thing on foreign soil (a 2003 concert in London) as the United States was about to go to war in Iraq. And as fiddler Martie Maguire so astutely points out, it’s the source of the comment that made it seem offensive: These were America’s sweethearts from the heartland, the top-selling female act of all time. At the film’s start, they’re singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl. You can’t get much more patriotic than that.

“Shut Up & Sing” teeters on the edge of deifying Maines, Maguire and her sister, banjo and guitar player Emily Robison, for their perseverance. They manage to maintain their family lives (Robison, who already had a son, gives birth to twins during filming) and, as importantly, they stick by each other throughout. When they finally come up with a response to post on their Web site, it’s always “we” and “us,” not “I” or “me.”

But the film also focuses on the shrewd, almost cynical strategies they adopt (with the help of manager Simon Renshaw, who thinks the hubbub will die down in “three days, tops”) in trying to keep their career afloat. As country radio stations stop playing the Chicks’ music, and even provide trash cans for angry fans to toss out their compact discs, they learn to find new places to play, new ways to attract listeners. The now-famous Entertainment Weekly cover, in which the three appeared naked and covered in black writing with words like “boycott” and “traitors,” was the slickest, most striking move of all.

Robison acknowledges that maybe the anti-Bush remark was the best thing that ever could have happened to the Dixie Chicks, an incredibly insightful point. They were at the top of their game — literally on their “Top of the World” tour at the time — and the upheaval they endured forced them to become hungry again, to feel a creative spark.

For their defiant next album, “Taking the Long Way,” featuring the single “Not Ready to Make Nice,” they sat down with producer Rick Rubin (who’s worked with such diverse acts as Neil Diamond and the Beastie Boys) and took their sound, and their lyrics, in an entirely new direction.

Kopple, the two-time Academy Award-winning documentarian, and Peck were there for all of this — and they had the benefit of countless hours of footage the Chicks were already shooting for use on their Web site. They’ve gotten so used to having cameras around that they’re completely uninhibited in what they say and do. There are plenty of candid conversations to savor and enjoy, especially as the women battle uber-patriot and fellow country star Toby Keith.

And whether you love or hate the outspoken Maines, you’ve got to give her this much: She’s never boring.

For fans, and new converts as well, there is plenty of music — on stage, in recording sessions, in rehearsals, just messing around. Maines’ piercingly clear voice and the Chicks’ smooth harmonies and beautiful blending of sounds ultimately cut through everything: the rhetoric, the noise, the hatred.