Four years ago, I nursed my first son with over one thousand other nursing mothers at a world-record breaking Berkeley “nurse-in.”
This year, my boy hops down the sidewalk into kindergarten.
Four years ago, the war in Iraq was in its infancy and President Bush’s approval ratings were sky-high.
This year, a growing and non-partisan chorus criticizes our involvement in Iraq, while the president stubbornly limps toward the end of his misguided term.
Four years ago, the Dixie Chicks began a world tour with a number one hit single, “Travelin’ Soldier,” about a girl who longs for her beau to return from Vietnam. The single dropped off the charts when lead singer Natalie Maines remarked in concert, “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”
This year — just days ago as I write this column — Sally Field accepts an Emmy award saying (in a line bleeped from the American telecast, but heard on Canadian television), “… if the mothers ruled the world there would be no goddamn wars in the first place.”
I am a mother who hates war and violence, and loves movies and music. Shut Up and Sing (Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, 2006) gives me a lot of what I care about in a film. It’s no date-night romance, true, but this documentary, which details the impact of Natalie Maines’ remark on the Dixie Chicks’ music, their families, and our culture, has me singing its praises.
Before Maines’ remark made the news, the Dixie Chicks had barely crossed my radar; afterwards, I couldn’t miss the footage of bulldozers crushing stacks of their CDs, the Senate hearings about whether country music stations had illegally colluded to keep the group’s songs off the air, and the Entertainment Weekly cover of them posing nude, tattooed with strategically-placed slogans like “Big Mouth,” “Saddam’s Angels,” and “Dixie Sluts,” just some of the unsavory epithets tossed their way in the uproar. And then, when the story died away, I found I still didn’t know anything about the Dixie Chicks.
Shut Up and Sing looks closely at the period from Maines’ career-altering comment to the group’s concert return three years later, shuttling back and forth between the two points so that we get to know the three Dixie Chicks – Maines, Emily Robison, and her sister Martie Maguire — as they react and regroup. Director Barbara Kopple, known for her Oscar-winning documentaries on American labor, brings us in to repeated strategy sessions between the group, their unflappable manager, their nervous corporate sponsor, and others involved with them. The women are reluctant activists; their initial reaction — despite their manager’s gleeful dreams of CD bonfires increasing their publicity (be careful what you wish for, the viewer thinks, knowing what’s to come) — is to back down, apologize, say their words were misconstrued. But they very quickly decide instead to take the heat and stand together in support of Maines’ comment. Unfamiliar with having so many people clamoring to talk to them, they choose their press selectively, and opt out of their corporate sponsorship rather than make artistic or political compromises. Then, in an interview with Diane Sawyer, Maines says bluntly: “Am I sorry I said that? Yes. Am I sorry I spoke out? No.”
Later, back from a tour in which they were picketed and dogged by country radio DJ’s refusing to play their songs, the group ponders their next album. They realize with wry relief that they can do anything, musically, that they please, since they don’t have to answer to any radio or market pressures. Instead of voicing other people’s words, as on earlier albums, now they are composing their own songs, writing their “therapy album.” Kopple shows the women talking with Chad Smith, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, about how his group divides song-writing credits (equally) and deals with the potential jealousies in a close-knit group of talented people working together. Maguire and Robison express some doubts about their role in this new album, not wanting the group to turn into Natalie Maines and The Fiddlers — it’s mostly Maines’ writing, her therapy, after all — but Kopple shows the three collaborating closely, each of them adding lyrics, fretting over the twanginess of a guitar lick (“Too country?”), working together to fine-tune their new sound.
As vividly as the film depicts the Dixie Chicks as a group of working artists, it also offers a tremendous view of their collaboration, their literal and metaphoric sisterhood. Diane Sawyer tries to stir them into a cat fight and they won’t bite, a moment reminiscent of the press invention of the Mommy Wars . They say they are family, and they really look like it. Every backstage and recording studio scene shows their seven children tumbling in and out of the frame; one recording session is cut short when a toddler lurches toward a stand of guitars, and turns into an impromptu jam with the child pulled safely on her mama’s lap, strumming her instrument. The group records the new album, Taking the Long Way, in Los Angeles so that Emily Robison can be near her obstetrician, and Kopple intercuts scenes of the group recording “So Hard” with Maguire and Robison speaking candidly about their struggles with infertility. While they talk about injections and hormones, the soundtrack plays their keening song: “It’s so hard when it doesn’t come easy, so hard when it doesn’t come fast… It felt like a given, something a woman’s born to do, a natural ambition to see a reflection of me and you.” The segment ends with the women together in the hospital as Robison labors with her twins, the others distracting her by reading their coverage in star magazines and discussing the war (“She’s havin’ a baby, by the way,” Robison’s husband reminds them, “If they’re listening to what you’re talkin’ about, it’s like, I ain’t fuckin’ goin’ out there”). The camera makes a quick cut (oh, if only childbirth could be edited in real life!) and Robinson is holding her babies, sighing, “Oh, oh, two of them! what am I going to do with two?” while the others sing delicate harmonies.
Kopple’s camera follows the women home, too, where we witness them carving out small pockets of regular family life: dinner at the kitchen table, trick or treating, playing with a hose out in the yard. “I don’t know too many women who get to bring their husband and two children to work,” Maguire comments, “I’m so lucky.” And yet, they all realize this comes at a price; Emily Robison’s oldest is 2 ½, and the travel is starting to wear on him. It wears on them all, but when they groan about being tired, they sound just like the rest of us. “I feel like I’ve aged five years since I had my twins,” Maguire comments, and Maines confesses that she once offered her husband a thousand dollars to get up with the kids (he didn’t do it).
But they can’t give it up. They are musicians and they are mothers, and they can’t imagine not being both. As Maguire says, making music is ” more than just a job; it’s a lifestyle. It’s part of our lives.” She started a band when she was twelve; her sister Emily joined when she was ten, and the Dixie Chicks were born in 1989. They would give up their careers now, Maguire says, weeping, if Natalie wanted to quit the group over the controversy, but they will try to make it work with their families as long as they can. The stakes are higher now; they might want to try out this more personal work in small clubs, but they can’t afford to. So Maines jokes with the band about cutting corners, “Meat’s expensive and ya’ll drink a lot of beer, so both of those are off.” And Robison puts it more personally, “When you have seven kids, you can’t go back to the RV, you can’t pile everybody in and go back and play small clubs.”
Ultimately, whether you are urban or rural, rock n’ roll or country, Shut Up and Sing tells a compelling story: of three women caught in the crossfire of a media circus drummed up to distract from the more disturbing news of the war; of three musicians who respond to boycotts by writing stronger, more personal music; of three mothers who found a way to combine work and family, and who show us all that mothers really can rock the world.