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Movie review: 'Shut Up & Sing'

Dan DeLuca
The Philadelphia Inquirer

There's a scene in "Shut Up & Sing," the revealing Dixie Chicks documentary, when the country-pop group and their British manager, Simon Renshaw, are strategizing about the fallout over singer Natalie Maines' remark that, "Just so you know, we're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas."

"I don't think we should shy away from controversy," Renshsaw theorizes about Maines comment during a London concert in March 2003. "Wouldn't it be great if we had people burning our CDs, and we were banned from the radio?"

Be careful what you wish for, dude. Barbara Kopple's and Cecilia Peck's "Shut Up & Sing" follows the Chicks -- Maines plus sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison -- around for three years as they deal with the ramifications of Maines' utterance in the run-up to the Iraq war.

Maines quip, of course, turned the Chicks into a political football booted around by right-wing pundits and country music star Toby Keith, and it did in fact get them banned from the country radio station where their song "Travelin' Soldier" had been No. 1 until Maines opened her mouth and spoke her mind.

"Shut Up" takes the Chicks' side, and sometimes verges on canonizing them as freedom of speech saints. But the film is much more than an anti-Bush blow in the culture wars. Like the 2004 documentary "Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster," "Shut Up" offers a fascinating window into the inner workings of an arena-sized band, from the day-to-day musical decisions to the business ones.

And like the heavy-metal movie, which dealt with a band trying to heal its addiction-severed soul though group therapy, "Shut Up" finds the Chicks trying to function while in crisis mode. The directors show us business meetings where the trio wonders whether its worth caring that their sponsors at Lipton Tea now think they're too hot too handle, and they catch the women rapping with Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith about the ego problems that drive bands apart.

We see the Chicks working on their 2006 album "Taking the Long Way," from the initial songwriting process to consulting with a Buddha-like Rick Rubin (in a room outfitted with a stuffed polar bear) as the producer bobs his head approvingly to one song, then tells Maines that she needs to completely rewrite the lyrics to another. And we watch the band juggle the responsibilities of motherhood -- with seven pre-school kids between them -- while facing up to death threats at a 2004 concert in Dallas.

Maines is the star through it all, an unrepentant loose cannon who can't imagine not stricking to her guns, and can't resist cracking jokes even when she's shown a picture of the guy who is suspected to have threatened to kill her. And they come off as tough-minded and talented members of a sisterhood that's sticking together for better or worse. And while the Chicks may not always be entirely sympathetic as they slowly come to grips with the reality that their career will never fully recover from one off-the-cuff remark, they always come across as entirely human.

SHUT UP & SING

3 ½ stars

Produced and directed by Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck. Music by the Dixie Chicks.

Running time: 1 hour, 33 mins.

Natalie Maines/Herself

Martie Maguire/Herself

Emily Robison/Herself

Simon Renshaw/Himself

George W. Bush/Himself

Parent's guide: R (profanity)

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