Chicks Dig the Long Haul

Sprung! There was nobody home and no particular deadline. My bride was on the family road, and Sprout the Last had an after-school playdate with his buddy that promised to extend into the evening. (Mom and Friend of the Year nomination: Josée!) Jailbreak! Run to daylight!

Flee to that beam of light in a dark, dark room: Escape to the Bytowne CinemaI didn’t much care what was there, but wasn’t displeased to find out that Shut Up and Sing!, the Dixie Chick-flick, was on. I’m not a big country music fan, but it had been hard not to be fascinated by the boiling stew of disgusted American overreaction when the DC lead singer mouthed off in London. So I was interested to see what this documentary made of the mess, and why these Chicks were in the middle of it.

Do you remember? Tanks and troops were massed on the Iraqi border, tens of millions of people around the world were massed in pre-emptive protest, and the DC happened to be in London where a huge crowd had marched for peace, perhaps that same day. “We’re with y’all,” lead singer Natalie Maines told the audience to roars of approval. “And just so you know, we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas…” And once word got back to the American networks, the if you’re not with us you’re against us neo-con PR steamroller had a gorgeous target. The DC were beautiful, popular, female and sold most of their records in the so-called Red states. And the world of country music is redneck-friendly. (I played the heck out of Garth Brooks’s The Hits for several years, and loved how he had  gradually brought gospel choirs and a social conscience – “When we all can sit / In our own kind of pews / We shall be free…” – to country music. Still, I found it hard, no matter how catchy the tune, to listen to a song like “American Honky-Tonk Bar Association”, which “represents the gun-rack, bare-crack, achin’ back, overtaxed, flag-wavin’ fun-lovin’ crowd…”)

When it came to the “disgusting traitors” who “should be strapped to a bomb and dropped on I-Rack” (people actually said things like that), the country music world spoke with one voice. The Chicks were Satan, and must be destroyed. The film, directed by Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck (Gregory’s girl, I think), follows the DC from the grainy video taken of THE ACT in London in 2003 and throughout their at first slack-jawed, then stubbornly defiant reactions to the uproar. It culminates in the release of a new and very different Dixie Chicks album in 2006. (Cynics might call the entire movie a marketing ploy, just as climate-change deniers devalue Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth as campaign fodder. And hey, the Chicks certainly understand marketing, but they also paid a huge price for their stance.) At the controversy’s height, not a country station in the U.S. played them – they had been for some years the biggest-selling band of any genre – and their record and concert ticket sales went way south. Yes, and there were disc-burnings, public floggings by the likes of Bill O’Reilly, and death-threats both vague and direct. One of the most chilling sequences in the film shows the Chicks before a concert in Dallas, where metal-detectors and 24-hour surveillance were the order of the day. They played their arses off that night. Tough Chicks.

Not surprisingly, they come across well. After all, when you’re in a contest with ignorance and xenophobia and time has shown you to be on the right side, it’s hard not to look good. For example, another strong scene has the Chicks and their spritely manager, Simon Renshaw, meeting with a PR consultant not long after the deceivingly easy early going in Iraq. The audience I was in laughed hard (and bitterly) over lines like these: You’ve got to lay low. The war is going so well, and it’s only going to get better. The President is incredibly popular, and his approval ratings are only going to climb… We were treated to the infamous time-dishonoured footage of the smirking Bush’s aircraft-carrier congratulations on “a job well done” to the Forces of Goodness. The Dixie Chicks were (and, to some extent, remain) a more corporate, commercially oriented act than I generally favour, but I came away impressed. These are talented women: Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, sisters and the basis of the band, are prodigiously talented musicians, and Natalie Maines can flat-out sing. She’s a compelling stage presence, and even in back-stage or hotel conversations, the camera can’t let her go. Neither could I.

She’s so watchable. It’s easy to see how she could become a shit-storm magnet. She is an alpha female: charismatic, funny, bright, tough, principled, and a self-confessed “bigmouth”. (Fluently foul-mouthed, too. I never quite get used to women making as many oral sex references as men might. BJ jokes abound, and all the Chicks join in.) But they are ultimately very appealing. (Shots of the darling seven children and interesting husbands they have among them, not to mention Emily’s childbirth experience, don’t hurt.) The women managed not only to stand together but to emerge, from what I saw and heard, a better and deeper and more interesting band because of their struggles. Heck, they’re even helping to write the songs. Shoot, I may even buy the new album. Shut Up and Sing is a good night at the movies. Not only did it entertain me and interest me musically, but it was a nervy case study of the mass psychology of war and patriotism and the precarious nature of free speech.

And I didn’t pay a dime for babysitting.

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