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An American Tale

Branded as traitors, the Dixie Chicks only grew stronger, and two filmmakers caught it all.

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The Dixie Chicks: Larger than life.
  • The Dixie Chicks: Larger than life.

Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck wanted badly to be in London in March 2003, when Dixie Chick Natalie Maines told an audience, "Just so you know, we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas." Kopple, an Oscar-winning maker of 1976's Harlan County, U.S.A. , was particularly interested in making a movie about the former sweethearts of the rodeo before Maines' offhand comment transformed the group into the Dixie Sluts -- America-haters whoring themselves for Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

Initially, the band refused the filmmakers' advances. But after the anti-Chicks movement started gaining momentum, the trio finally relented, choosing Kopple and Peck over a slew of other suitors because, according to Kopple, they "trusted us." The result is Shut Up & Sing, a documentary covering the crisis wrought by Maines' comment, as well as the recording of Taking the Long Way, the Chicks' new disc, produced by Rick Rubin.

Feeling like something overheard, as opposed to manufactured, Shut Up & Sing elicits both grins and gasps, such as when the Chicks' male manager and female publicist clash over the infamous Entertainment Weekly cover, on which the women appear nude and branded with right-wingers' hateful epithets. Kopple and Peck were allowed access to everything -- even the hospital room in which Emily Robison prepares to give birth. Consequently, one of the myriad plots concerns the sisters Robison and Martie Maguire's inability to conceive children until doctors intervene.

Kopple and Peck did not know what they would find when they joined the Chicks at the end of 2004. Such as when Maines watches George Bush tell Tom Brokaw that the girls shouldn't get their "feelings hurt" by the mean-spirited backlash to her comment. "What a dumb fuck," Maines says, almost to no one at first. Then she looks at the camera and grins -- partly sheepish, partly devilish. "You're a dumb fuck," she says.

"You wanna go with it," Kopple says, regarding that moment. "The important thing, as [filmmaker] Al Maysles taught me -- my first job was with the Maysleses -- was, you have to let your characters be, get your agenda out of your head and allow them to be who they are, and go around whatever corner you need to."

It doesn't seem so long ago that the Chicks were as American as apple pie, occasionally appearing on Prairie Home Companion. There are faded recollections of those days in Shut Up & Sing: old snapshots and grainy video footage of the girls in their shiny skirts. But that quickly gives way to their 2003 concert in Dallas, where cops welcome the Chicks with warnings of death threats. It's depicted as a triumphant moment; they never consider canceling, and Maines, while having her hair done, even cracks wise at the photo of the suspect: "He's kinda cute . . . Well he is."

Yet Maguire suggests near the movie's end that Maines has always felt guilty for what she said, because it endangered not only the Chicks' lives, but most certainly their careers. Maguire, in tears, insists that was never the case, but also says -- had it come to that -- both her sister and she would have given up music if it meant staying alive. It's a wrenching moment that the entire film builds toward: This isn't about a sentence spoken without forethought or even malice, but about how three women stared down ruin without thinking there was any other option.

"What I saw happen in such an incredible way -- and it had a deep impression on me -- is their sense of friendship and the huge bond they have together, how they have each other's back and how that grew so strong through all of this," says Kopple. "I saw that emerge, and it made me think about my whole life and my friends, and how we let work interfere with who we are. That was huge. They were surprised anyone would care what they said. They were shocked. But it was the most amazing thing that ever could have happened to them. It allowed them to grow and do this wonderful album, and they have emerged as women who are larger than life."

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