dixie-chicks.jpgThe Dixie Chicks documentary Shut Up And Sing is so named after a lyric in a recent song, itself derived from a death threat the band got. The Chicks, the biggest selling girl group in US history had pissed off the largely Republican country audience by saying they were ashamed the George Bush was from Texas at a UK gig. So a conflicted audience decided to burn records, effigies and boycott gigs. The phrase Shut Up And Sing is in itself paradoxical, but at least is spelt correctly unlike a lot of the other banners. That said, the political act that got them this attention is pretty minor, and after spending a couple of hours in their company in the film, you start to sympathise with the banner. Not that they aren’t funny, witty and intelligent women caught in a bizarre situation. But you wish that somewhere along the line the film would give you a whole song, just to illustrate why they were so popular in the first place. AND I OWN DIXIE CHICKS ALBUMS!

So as a rockumentary it follows Spinal Tap pretty faithfully (you don’t get many full songs in that either), just with less gags. But slightly bizarre British manager: check! The film is at its best when it is illustrating the madness of the boycott, and the bands own response – which is basically to say fuck you to the country music establishment. The actual response, to go make an album with Rick Rubin in LA which is not a country record, is a less successful part of the film. Not that some of the songs aren’t interesting or good, but we don’t hear enough of them, or enough of their previous material, to judge if it really is a departure. Instead the film takes a detour down the avenue of family politics – as if to say that “hey, the Dixie Chicks are ordinary parents and families too”, as if to win back their downhome audience. This is not an objective documentary after all. Its all part of a very calculated career, one which has taken a difficult turn and this film may redeem them in some eyes, and win a whole new audience. Which is again why it’s a pity they don’t ever play a song all the way through.

Indeed the film has a paradoxical take on the Dixie Chicks career. We see them discussing the statement after the fact as a good career move. We see them endorsing Lipton tea, we see blatant commercialism. Selling out is what they do – they are called The Dixie Chicks after all, and they play on the three tarted up girls on stage image to a tee. But suddenly when the country music world kicks them in the teeth they start considering artistic integrity. Natalie, the bigmouth who kicked this all off, is seen openly contemplating an artistic freedom like that of Dylan or Springsteen, where they don’t have to suck up to radio and TV slots. Ironically this freedom comes with the boycott rather than the previous power of selling millions of records.

The band, for all the family moments, allow themselves to appear mercenary when the reality of the effect on their career comes up. Natalie cannot understand why the Red Hot Chilli Peppers share songwriting credits on their album when different people may have contributed different amounts*. She wants the artistic ownership of her occasional songwriter efforts.This stage of their career is completely down to one thing she said, and her refusal to apologise – and there are stages where the rest of the band wonder if this suddenly turning into a Natalie solo project (the recent album is all written by the Chicks – in some tedious wander down to singer/songwriting respectability). Though the band are generous enough to each other and no diva moments pop up, they are not the easiest of clients for their manager. They may love music, but they also love the cash cow that comes with it: the biggest shock they get in the film is when they contemplate never playing an arena tour again. Which compared to what they were actually complaining about in the first place, the war in Iraq, seems a touch self-indulgent.

As a documentary it is best as another look at the Republican south of the US, and the power of the right. As such its in interesting film interspersed with odd industry bits about recording an album. As a rockumentary it never really hit the nub as to why I should own the new Dixie Chicks record. Except that on the record I’ll be able to hear the track properly, cos on the record, they really do shut up and finally sing.

*I assume its actually due to embarrassment that no one member will own up to writing their tedious funkathons.