Shut up & Sing (documentary)

All Natalie Maines said was that she was embarrassed George W. Bush was from the same state she was. For that she and her band, the Dixie Chicks, were pilloried and vilified. Bill O’Reilly said “they deserve to be slapped around.” Pat Robertson called them “the dumbest bimbos.” People burned their CDs. They got death threats. All this for expressing disapproval of the president?

Of course, as the fine new documentary “Shut Up & Sing” demonstrates, “We’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas” implies so much more than mere disapproval of Bush. Maines said it at a concert in London, and while it’s one thing to criticize the president here, it’s something else to do it on foreign soil. Don’t air your dirty laundry in front of the neighbors, you know? Furthermore, this was in March 2003, days before America invaded Iraq, when patriotism was running high and Bush’s approval rating was soaring. It wasn’t just that a lot of people liked Bush. It was that a lot of people ADORED him. How could anyone possibly think otherwise?!

“Shut Up & Sing” cuts back and forth between 2003 and 2005/2006. It is ironic and amusing to see how much things have changed since Maines’ fateful declaration and its aftermath. Bush’s approval ratings are in the toilet now, with ever-larger percentages of Americans believing the war in Iraq was a mistake and that it has been badly handled. If Maines were to say now what she said then, no one would bat an eye.

But at the time — heavens, what a crapstorm! The Dixie Chicks — frontwoman Maines, Emily Robison and her sister Martie Maguire — were the best-selling female group EVER. They had millions of followers, but not much crossover success. They were a country group, and most of their fans were country fans. And most country fans are conservative Republicans. For the Chicks to speak out against Bush and the war in Iraq was a slap in the face to much of their constituency.

Country radio stations stopped playing them. The ones that didn’t suffered boycotts by listeners. The filmmakers, Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, were following the Chicks at the time and have footage of the infamous statement itself, as well as the behind-the-scenes discussions that followed. The sponsor of the group’s international tour, Lipton Tea, threatens to pull out. The girls are increasingly perplexed and amazed that something as simple as not liking President Bush could inspire such a strong reaction.

Kopple and Peck include scenes with Dixie Chicks fans and ex-fans, too, to give us a sense of what the mood was at the time. “If you’re supporting the Dixie Chicks, you’re supporting communism,” says one passionate ex-fan in a statement that, no matter how many different ways I think about it, never makes any sense.

All of this is fascinating to watch, partly to see how much things have changed in the interim, partly to witness the delicate inner workings of the three-woman band. Maines was the one who made the offensive remark, but the Dixie Chicks as a group are punished. How do Robison and Maguire feel about suffering for Maines’ sins? Do they even agree with her? How do they get back on track afterward?

Somewhat less interesting are the scenes set in 2005, with the group working on a new album. To be frank, the material dealing specifically with the Dixie Chicks as a musical act is probably intriguing only to Dixie Chicks fans. It’s when the focus is on the controversy, on how everything is political these days, that the movie feels fresh and alive.

The Chicks returned from their international tour wondering how the reception would be in their homeland. Their first U.S. date after the brouhaha was in Greenville, S.C., where a statue of Strom Thurmond sits proudly in the center of town. Hilarious paradoxes like that — liberal singers in a conservative genre, concerts by pariahs being held in a city where a statue honors one of the nation’s most notorious racists — are what make “Shut Up & Sing” a remarkably entertaining look at politics in the 21st century. America is a crazy place, and we love it. The Dixie Chicks do, too.

B+ (1 hr., 33 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, some sexual references.)