Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Shut Up & Sing

Posted By on Wed, Nov 29, 2006 at 12:00 AM

Nothing says a big F-U to the establishment like a pop singer full of rebellion: "God Save the Queen." "Ohio." "911 is a Joke." "Get Up, Stand Up." And now, the Dixie Chicks' "Not Ready to Make Nice."

OK, the Chicks are downright downy-soft compared to Johnny Rotten or Neil Young, and no one pumps fists with eyes blazing in rage when they hear "Cowboy Take Me Away." If they do, it's time to switch meds.

But since one glorious fateful Bush crack back in '03, these bumpkins with 'tude have been embroiled in a controversy that's shaken the Nashville faithful and rankled Washington.

It all starts with the Dixie Chicks — the best-selling women's band ever — flying high. On a London stop of their world tour, Natalie Maines, all chicked-out in gobs of makeup, hair products and couture, is fired up from watching the war in Iraq heat up on CNN. On stage, she blurts out a comment between songs and is met with cheers from the Brits: "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." The incident escalates from no big deal to minor crisis and finally to all-out war, as rabid right-wing country music fans turn their frothy-mouthed hysteria back on Maines and company faster than Jeff Gordon can complete a lap.

Still, to make a whole documentary out of the Chicks' dealings with the fallout may appear excessive, especially to those not entrenched in the world of corporate country music. Wasn't the whole episode just a blip on pop culture's radar, and only worthy of some fodder for late-night talk shows and maybe a provocative Entertainment Weekly cover?

Director Bruce Leddy's answer is, decidedly, "no," and he proves he's right.

It's not what Maines said, or even how the group responded to the outcry, that makes for the most compelling drama in Shut Up & Sing. (And if you thought Maines' original line was sassy, wait till you hear what she calls Bush here. Hoo boy.) What's brilliant is Leddy captures the mood of a nation coerced into being afraid of everything and everyone — even a glammed-up, big-mouthed country singer in Prada.

The vitriol is shocking, not just the usual wrath of CD burnings and radio-play bans, but in the degree of hatred toward the women. How quickly the Chicks' audience turned against them is mind-blowing.

And this was three years ago. In the wake of the 2006-midterm elections, it's easy to think, "Oh, what a difference three years makes." But does it? Put down those "freedom fries" and watch the road, because plenty of mega-SUV-drivers haven't scraped off their "I support the president and our troops" stickers and still haven't forgiven the Chicks.

The weakest parts of Shut Up & Sing have the soul of a VH-1 Behind the Music doc. Their struggles of balancing new babies, hubbies back home and keeping it real on the ranch aren't that dramatic or revealing.

Those moments, thankfully, are few. The real treat is watching the haters outside the Chicks' shows, protesting with signs like: "I support the president, our troops and Toby Keith."

On one hand, it's completely hilarious that people took the whole thing so seriously. On the other, it's totally scary.

Rage against the machine, Chicks. Rage on.


Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).

Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to


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