There’s some irony in watching the screening of the documentary Dixie Chicks: Shut Up And Sing at the Toronto International Film Festival on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. The tragedy and its aftermath are partly what inspired singer Natalie Maines to comment onstage in 2003 at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire that she was ashamed the President of the United States was from Texas.
Opening with the Texas-reared group — Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison — reading some of the hate e-mail that poured in after Maines’ comment, the documentary chronicles the rather stupefying onslaught the band faced as a result of Maines’ comment. There’s plenty of Bush-bashing (“what a dumbfuck”), F-word usage, and even blowjob jokes — stuff that directors Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck obviously kept in for a reason: to show the Chicks as they are, warts and all. None of it is particularly shocking.
The movie gets its momentum from the controversy surrounding the band’s politics and the ways in which they dealt with the backlash as it happened, from the bulldozing of their CDs to country radio’s boycott and beyond. But it’s the personal dimension — footage of the women with their husbands and children, and in the studio together — where the film truly shines. The ways in which the women voice their opinions even in the face of criticism, support one another, and fight back is truly compelling, whether you’re anti-Bush or not. Your heart goes out to the Chicks as they endure the backlash — which some could argue is itself a form of terrorism. (Footage of the group taking the stage directly after Maines receives a very specific death threat — “Natalie Maines will be shot dead, Saturday June 6 in Dallas Texas” — is especially poignant.)
With any luck, Shut Up And Sing will achieve what the band’s been trying to achieve for the last three years: to shut the door on this episode for good and move on.