NEW YORK -- Just weeks after 9/11, Ari Fleischer, then White House press secretary, warned Americans to "watch what they say."
Beyond alarming civil-rights advocates, who recoiled from the ominous tone of his words, Fleischer's admonition was a reminder that, in some quarters at least, any voice of dissent could be construed as anti patriotic, regardless of content or context. Just ask Bill Maher -- or the Dixie Chicks, the fiery subjects of Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck's rousing new behind-the-scenes portrait, "Shut Up & Sing," which premiered last month at the Toronto Film Festival and opens in Boston Nov. 10.
In 2003, these massively talented Southern stars were the best-selling all-female group in North America, beloved by adoring fans and the image-conscious country-music establishment, which regarded them as their sunny, all-American ambassadors.
During a concert at Shepherd's Bush Empire in London, however, on the eve of the Bush administration's shock-and-awe campaign in Iraq, lead vocalist Natalie Maines remarked that she was "against this war, this violence," then cheekily added she was "ashamed" that the president of the United States was from Texas, her home state. Within days her comment was circulated online, and a backlash was born.
"I think they thought that they could set an example with the Dixie Chicks, that they would crumble," says Kopple, 60, a two-time Oscar-winning filmmaker, during a conversation in New York. "But I think they had no idea who they were dealing with."
Fueled by the zeal of arch-conservative websites such as FreeRepublic.com , Maines's remark (made "on foreign soil," apoplectic fans and talking heads exclaimed, as if Great Britain were in cahoots with the Axis of Evil) quickly mushroomed into a major controversy, earning the group reams of hate mail, a nationwide radio boycott, CD burnings, even death threats. Willfully or not, the Dixie Chicks had stumbled into the ugly world of partisan politics. But instead of backing down, the makers of "Shut Up & Sing" discovered, the Chicks remained defiant.
"That's why country music got so mad at them," Kopple says of Maines and sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, her musical cohorts. "They didn't toe the line, in a sense. Country music probably thought of them as very conservative [people], and when they came out like this [against the war], I guess they felt betrayed."
Cutting between then and now, "Shut Up & Sing" depicts the personal and artistic transformation this episode wreaked, for better and worse, on the lives of Maines, Maguire, and Robison. Instead of making nice with Nashville institutions like CMT and the Country Music Awards, the Chicks boldly pursued other avenues of self-expression.
Working with famed producer Rick Rubin and songwriter Dan Wilson in 2005, the Dixie Chicks ventured away from the traditional country sound -- and its marketing apparatus -- to make "Taking the Long Way Home," a mature, even defiant album overshadowed by events of the previous year and a half.
Kopple and Peck have collaborated on numerous film projects, including a doc about Peck's father, Gregory, star of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Both mention that they had wanted to profile the Dixie Chicks even before the anti war brouhaha.
"We were always intrigued by them and how they had risen to that level of success," says Peck, 48, on the phone from Austin, "and the very fiery, independent spirit that had shown up way before London."
After hearing about "the comment," Kopple recalls, they were even more keen to do a film, and immediately sent over a new proposal. A few months passed, and then Kopple and Peck met with the Chicks in Los Angeles and got the green light, beating out other interested parties, including Michael Moore and "Don't Look Back" helmer D.A. Pennebaker.
"I think what we told them is that we were interested in their journey," says Peck. "We didn't have an agenda about how to portray it or a slant that we wanted to take [on the controversy]. We just wanted to experience and understand what they were going through, through their eyes."
Glimpsed in early 2004, when filming began with a bare-bones, all-female crew, the Chicks reveal themselves to be savvy strategists and hard-driving businesswomen, negotiating with a rep from jittery world-tour sponsor Lipton, managing the stinging aftermath of the radio ban on ticket sales, and posing for a provocative cover of Entertainment Weekly, adorned with some of the more hateful nicknames ("Dixie Twits," "Saddam's Angels") they'd recently acquired. Maines, in particular, is a spitfire, never hesitating to say exactly what she's thinking. Simon Renshaw, their amiably effusive manager, is a sage adviser who makes things happen. But he's no Colonel Parker: He clearly takes orders from Maines, Maguire, and Robison.
"They are women in control," emphasizes Kopple, who says she was surprised and "totally fascinated" not only by the Chicks' complete autonomy over their hard-won, often stressful careers and the richness of their family lives (all three are mothers to small children), but the intense bonds of friendship that unite them. "Sure, they argue and discuss, but when it comes down to it, they are there for each other."
When Robison gives birth, for instance, her bandmates are there with her, jubilantly taking photos and making saucy jokes with her husband. And in their obligatory interview with Diane Sawyer in 2003, tough questions are asked. Yet rather than a teary-eyed confessional, the segment is an impressive show of group solidarity, and there are no apologies.
"They don't flinch," says Peck, with obvious admiration. "And that's exactly how they feel and who they are. They don't look back, they don't have regrets."
Like Peck, Kopple says she had no expectations at the outset -- "The magic of documentary is that you don't know. You go with life and what happens" -- and that her crew had, at best, a negligible impact on the Chicks' overall demeanor and decision-making process. "We tried to let them forget we were even there, because what they were doing in their lives and the things they were figuring out and the music they were writing and the relationships they were having with their families is what" they were focused on. "I don't think we mattered."
Kopple has had a long, distinguished career as a socially conscious documentarian. She was a member of the collective that produced the harrowing 1972 anti war film "Winter Soldier," and in 1976, she won an Academy Award for "Harlan County, U.S.A.," an incisive, unabashedly militant doc about beleaguered Kentucky coal miners. She won another Oscar in 1991 for "American Dream," which trailed a group of Hormel meatpackers in their struggle for better working conditions. Other credits include "Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson" and "Wild Man Blues," a popular film about Woody Allen's tour of Europe with his New Orleans-style jazz troupe.
"The majority of the films that I do are about people who are fighting for social justice, people who are standing up for what they believe in, and people who won't be silenced," says Kopple, who in 1998 was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. "I'm sure many of the people who'll see this Dixie Chicks film would never have thought they would be so complex, so bright, such great businesswomen and so alive."
Still, Kopple believes the cost-of-free-speech aspect may have a positive political -- and even personal -- effect on viewers of any persuasion.
"I'm hoping the people who don't agree with the Dixie Chicks, or with what they said, will see this film so they can understand where they're coming from. Because it seems like in this country, there is a real cowboy mentality: 'You're either with us or against us.' Dialogue has been lost, so we need people like this more than ever."
Damon Smith can be reached at email@example.com.