When Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple and her directing partner, Cecilia Peck, first approached the Dixie Chicks about making a documentary on the band, they were turned down.
"We were really disappointed," Kopple says of the initial rejection. "But then a few days later, they made the comment, and we were like, 'We have to do this.'"
Kopple is referring, of course, to Natalie Maines's now-infamous quote about George W. Bush. At a show in London, just ten days prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the lead singer uttered the words that transformed her and her bandmates -- Emily Robison and Martie Maguire -- into country-music outcasts and free-speech activists. "Just so you know," Maines said, "we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas."
As soon as the American press got hold of the news, Maines and company became the target of the kind of conservative smear campaign usually reserved for sitting presidents. A firestorm ensued, prompting protests, CD burnings, blacklisting on country radio, and death threats from those who demanded, "Shut up and sing or [your] life will be over."
Initially, upon being approached about the documentary that would become Shut Up & Sing, the Chicks were concerned with how they'd be represented. But, Kopple insists, once she and Peck were given the go-ahead, they were "free to tell whatever story we wanted," without interference.
After sifting through hundreds of hours of archival footage, as well as footage filmed by Kopple and Peck during the recording of the Chicks' fourth album, Taking the Long Way, the filmmakers opted to focus on what initially drew them to the Chicks: the fact that Maines, Robison and Maguire are powerful women -- mothers first, wives second, musicians third.
"One of the significant [aspects of] the film that I just loved, that inspired me and changed me as a filmmaker, is their sense of friendship and how strong they are, how strong their bond is," Kopple says. "This would've pulled anyone else apart, but they just had each other's backs."
That might be true, but Shut Up & Sing also depicts Maines's stubborn, justified righteousness driving the controversy's management. The Chicks demonstrated an almost startling savvy when it came to manipulating their public image with such media coverage as an Entertainment Weekly cover of them naked and covered in words like "Dixie Sluts" and "Traitor."
"I think they are women who are extremely hands-on," Kopple explains. "Not only about their music, but their business and business strategy, too. They want to be included in everything."
It has to be asked, then: Should Shut Up & Sing be considered part of that business strategy? "No. I don't think they thought the documentary would show in theaters," Kopple insists. "I think they thought maybe it would be like home movies. They had no idea, no idea."
In fact, the Chicks didn't see a final cut until the end of this past July. Cunning strategy or not, a recent mainstream media ban on advertising the film has only played further into their hands. On October 26, NBC refused to air Shut Up & Sing ads because they disparaged President Bush.
"I think that it's pretty revealing, since the film is about censorship and free speech," Kopple says. "It shows us how delicate and how troubled we are as a country and how we have to speak up."
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