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'Shut Up' stands up

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CHICKS FLICK: They didn't back down.
  • CHICKS FLICK: They didn't back down.

Ah, the bad old days. You remember those, right? Those years just after 9/11, when it became unpatriotic to criticize the president, his minions and their imperial ambitions — when the majority of America convinced itself that George W. Bush was Uncle Sam, Sgt. York and The Marlboro Man wrapped into one, instead of the D-grade nincompoop we were all sure he was on Sept. 10, 2001.

As seen in the riveting new documentary “Shut Up and Sing,” the pop/country singing trio The Dixie Chicks managed to stumble headlong into that red, white and blue quagmire of misplaced patriotism in 2003. That year, with their single flying high at the top of the country and pop charts and Bush quickly lying the country into war with Iraq, lead singer Natalie Maines told a London crowd that the Chicks were ashamed that George Bush was from their home state of Texas.

Within days, the right-wing press — aided and abetted by Bush-loving Republicans in control of conglomerated radio giants like Cumulus and Clear Channel — had managed to turn an off-the-cuff comment into a major affront to the country, one that the Chicks still struggle to overcome. Eventually, not only was their music pushed from the airwaves, they saw the situation whipped into a media-fueled frenzy, with attention-loving protestors haunting their concerts and radio stations hosting parties (at the bidding of their corporate masters, it was later revealed) at which listeners cheered while steamrollers crushed Dixie Chicks albums to dust. Split between 2003 and the recording and launch of their new “Taking the Long Way” album and tour in 2006, “Shut Up and Sing” records the brouhaha and the group’s efforts to press on with family and career while enduring everything from taunting signs to death threats.

While “Shut Up and Sing” turns out to be a stunningly good music documentary, detailing the against-all-odds creation of one of the most poignant and personal albums country music — and maybe music in general — has seen in years, its most important accomplishment might be to serve as a kind of time capsule to what will surely be known someday as one of the darkest hours for free speech — a time when Americans of all stripes saw their patriotism challenged because they dared to question a president and his war of personal profit and vengeance. The fact that The Dixie Chicks refused to knuckle under, even at the cost of own megawatt careers, is the mark of true patriotism, one that puts them in rare company alongside those who wouldn’t be silenced by the thumbscrews of political happenstance or pseudo-patriotic fervor. With “Shut Up and Sing,” we get to see it happen, from beginning to end, like a horrible accident that ends up making the victim stronger in the end. It’s enough to make the free-speech loving among us stand up and shout, even if it doesn’t turn out so rosy for the Chicks in terms of their careers.

“Shut Up and Sing” is one hell of a documentary about the commitment people make to their friends when the chips are down, the lengths a demagogue will go to make an example of his critics, and the danger of nationalism run amok. It’s a must see for any lover of the documentary form and for anyone who cares about free speech.

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