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Let Freedom Sing 

Dixie Chicks documentary is an ode to patriotism

In addition to being acknowledged as a great actor, the late Gregory Peck was also admired for being a great humanitarian, involving himself in causes ranging from cancer awareness to nuclear disarmament to gay rights. A devout liberal, he marched with Martin Luther King, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Lyndon Johnson and earned a spot on Richard Nixon's notorious "Enemies" list (a compilation eccentric enough to also house Paul Newman, Joe Namath and Carol Channing).

It's nice to see that Gregory's progressive values rubbed off on his daughter, Cecilia Peck. Along with two-time Oscar-winning filmmaker Barbara Kopple (who made the lovely 1999 documentary A Conversation With Gregory Peck), Cecilia serves as co-director and co-producer of Shut Up & Sing, the story of three women whose struggles with hypocrisy, misogyny and idiocy allowed them to emerge as inspirational American icons.

The three women in question are, of course, the members of the Dixie Chicks, the wildly successful country music act whose popularity took a plunge back in 2003 when, during a London show (at the ironically titled venue Shepherds Bush Empire), lead singer Natalie Maines stated that she was ashamed President George W. Bush was from her home state of Texas.

This innocuous statement, murmured as almost a throwaway line by Maines, was delivered on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, at a time when the majority of Americans had been easily duped into believing that slaughtering thousands of Iraqi men, women and children was a terrific idea as long as it uncovered the WMDs, protected our shores from Saddam's marauders, spread democracy, or whatever other bullshit reason was being slung on any given day by the war criminals in the White House. So when the AP got hold of Maines' comment and caused it to spread like wildfire across the country, the result was disastrous for Dixie darlings Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire. The country music establishment deserted the band on every conceivable level: Sales plummeted, radio stations refused to play them, and fans gathered to burn and bulldoze their CDs.

Shut Up & Sing spends most of its running time jumping back and forth between 2003 and 2006. It focuses heavily on the dark days of the controversy, with a good chunk of the footage capturing the attitudes of the C&W fans (many of whom seem to have trouble putting together complete sentences) who apparently believe they're being good, patriotic Americans by championing Bush while condemning the Chicks. Of course, as newsreel footage shows these yahoos destroying Dixie Chicks CDs en masse, we realize all that's missing are Swastikas on their arms.

Yet as the film subtly but irreputably suggests, the Chicks' crime wasn't just badmouthing the president; no, their grossest offense was being women who spoke their minds. Anybody who's ever watched footage of burly men screaming at frightened females entering abortion clinics -- yelling so hard that their faces turn red and spittle flies out at regular intervals -- has noticed the perverse, almost joyful, gleam in their eyes, which reveals that these aren't guys whose driving force in life is to protect the unborn; these are cowardly, sexist bullies who get their jollies off at exerting their power over what they perceive as the inferior sex. In much the same mindset, it's apparent that a sizable number of these C&W fans, to say nothing of country twit Toby Keith and the usual idiot FOX commentators (all seen here tossing around words like "bimbos" and "sluts"), are more offended that these women didn't know their place in society than by anything else. Even Bush gets in a condescending dig, offering that the Dixie Chicks shouldn't get "their feelings hurt" because of declining record sales. Maines' stunned -- and accurate -- reaction? "He's a dumb fuck!"

The more recent segments of the film, shot through this past summer, detail the group's efforts to break away from the country yokels that no longer want them and create music for a more accepting audience. (The resultant album, last May's Rick Rubin-produced Taking the Long Way, is still more country than rock, but it's a gem nonetheless.) It's during these portions that we come to realize to what extent Natalie Maines ranks as an American heroine. Robison and Maguire are strong-willed individuals in their own right (and their support of Maines is touching), while the band's British manager, the savvy and funny Simon Renshaw, is almost personable enough to warrant his own film. Yet it's Maines who shines brightest. Intelligent, independent and opinionated, she's well aware of the cross she has to bear -- one that she in a sense hoisted upon herself -- yet she never shies away from her principles, repeatedly displaying a strong moral fiber while others around her suggest that she back down or sell out.

That Bush has been proven so deadly wrong about the Iraq situation, and that the American people are finally waking up to the evils of this administration (at least as evidenced by the elections and Bush's freefall poll numbers) -- this all seems beside the point as far as Shut Up & Sing is concerned. Even without the support of the changing winds, it's clear that Natalie Maines believes in freedom of speech, believes in her convictions, and believes in this great nation of ours. And those, my friends, are the signs of a true American patriot.

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