Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 7, 2007)
In 2003, the Dixie Chicks immediately went from mega-successful pop country group to free speech cause celebre. At a concert in England, Chick Natalie Maines made a comment that she was ashamed that President George W. Bush came from Texas. Some applauded her statement, but the Chicks’ main US fan base wasn’t too happy about that. A vicious backlash ensued.
A few years later, we see the state of the Chicks as they work on Taking the Long Way, their first post-uproar album. First, however, we go back to 2003 to see the Chicks at the peak of their success. They sing the “Star Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl, see their sponsorship deal with Lipton Tea, and start the tour in support of their smash album Home in London.
That’s where Maines made her infamous statement, and Sing shows the backlash. It goes through parts of 2003 as we see initial reactions and attempts on the parts of the Chicks and their associates to manage the affair. Through these events, we meet and hear from Chicks Maines, Martie Maguire, and Emily Robison as well as manager Simon Renshaw, Lipton consultant Michael Berland, and publicist Cindi Berger.
Eventually we move to 2005 and shift to Los Angeles for the recording of Way. We follow those sessions as well as other issues like Emily’s pregnancy and plans for re-establishing the band’s presence. We also get a little Chicks history. These portions of the film bring in recording artist Dan Wilson, Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, recording mixer Jim Scott, producer Rick Rubin, Natalie’s father Lloyd, Emily’s husband Charlie, and Martie’s husband Gareth.
At times the movie flips back to the 2003 tour and shows the reaction on American soil. We see the semi-triumphant first show in South Carolina but also watch the undeclared radio boycott and the plummeting album sales. There’s also more friction when Neanderthal redneck singer Toby Keith tosses in his two cents and even a death threat against Natalie. Here we find notes from KJ97 San Antonio program director Clayton Allen, KRBL Lubbock general manager Paul Beane, KJ97 DJ Randy Carroll, tour manager Richard Coble, head of security EJ Wojtowicz, road manager Mindi Pelletier, and KQBR Lubbock program director Kidd Manning.
Eventually the movie comes back to 2006 and looks at the promotion and reception of Way as well as for the Chicks’ 2006 tour. These elements bring in recording mixer Chris Testa, Natalie’s husband/actor Adrian Pasdar, and Creative Artists Agency’s Rob Light. The film concludes with a “return to the scene of the crime”: a 2006 show in London at the same venue where Natalie made her infamous statement in 2003.
When Sing focuses on the Chicks’ career management, it excels. Really, that’s the prime calling card for a documentary about the period of 2003 to 2006, at least for those of us with a minimal interest in the band’s music. I maintain a fairly neutral disposition toward the Chicks, as I can’t say they do much for me, but I don’t dislike them, either. This means that the parts of Sing focused on their music tends to bore me.
Much of the material from 2005 falls into this category and leaves me cold. We see aspects of the recording sessions and some family related issues. All of these are well and good, and perhaps if I liked the Chicks more than I do, I might have gotten into them. To be sure, I enjoy “behind the scenes” glimpses of acts I dig. But frankly, I was bored during much of the 2005 footage. It just felt like filler that detracted from the film’s main focus.
When we look at the 2003 footage or the 2005-06 elements, Sing becomes considerably more interesting. As we watch the Bush-related backlash unfold, it seems more and more insane. It felt nuts at the time, but hindsight makes it come across as even more overblown, and not just because of the changes in how we view the Iraq war and the president almost four years later.
Maines’ statement demonstrates a fact Michael Richards now knows: in this era, millions of folks will almost instantly know anything a public figure says or does. When you watch the footage from that 2003 London concert, it’s clear Maines made her comment as an off-hand little joke. She obviously never intended to create a furor or generate debate about the war. She was on friendly territory and tossed off a glib remark.
How in the world that tiny swipe at the president created all the uproar remains beyond me. Death threats? Destruction of the Chicks’ CDs? References to the band as traitors? Talk about over-reaction – how any of the nuts who slammed the door on the Chicks can defend themselves – especially in a society that’s supposed to value free speech – seems unfathomable.
But Sing is really more about the Chicks’ reactions to the reactions, and those segments offer its most fascinating. Maines is a key figure, of course, though she remains tough to interpret. While she never intended to be a figure for the advancement of freedom, she seems to cotton to that role, at least after the initial shock faded. Actually, the funny part about Sing is how we see different sides emerge. Maguire wants to apologize and minimize the incident immediately, whereas manager Renshaw wants to fan the flames. He and Maines actually thought they could make the uproar work for them.
They were wrong, but so was Maguire. Maines had no reason to apologize, so any effort in that regard would have amounted to a callow attempt to maintain favor with the band’s conservative fans. And that seems to be fine with Maguire, as 2003 shows her in a constant state of panic about the Chicks’ success. She incessantly worries that she’ll no longer be on the top of the mountain. Maguire changes her tune in 2005, as she then pretended she didn’t mind the band’s decline in popularity, but this looks like spin control. Clearly she fell from grace kicking and screaming, and the movie makes her seem superficial.
Back to Maines, I still can’t quite figure her out. On one hand, she often comes across like a whiny brat. She makes a few more provocative statements through the documentary, but these don’t seem like they’re intended toward any purpose other than adolescent shock value. However, some occasions show how she does relish her new role as free speech advocate, and she can appear surprisingly thoughtful as she sticks to her guns. Is Maines truly an independent free thinker or is she just an immature big mouth? The movie leaves it up to us to decide.
As for Robison, don’t expect much insight into her personality. She ends up in Derek Smalls territory as the lukewarm water between the fire of Maines and the ice of Maguire. We remember Robison because she’s the prettiest of the bunch and heavily pregnant through the 2005 scenes, but otherwise she fades into the background.
As a documentary, Sing gets points for its honesty. The press materials for Sing tout the band’s “triumphant return to the top of the charts”, which is a disingenuous turn. While it’s true that Taking the Long Way went to #1 on the pop charts, methinks those PR folks are too eager to declare victory for the Chicks. Way sold a couple million copies – a decent total, but a pretty steep drop from the six million moved by 2002’s Home, which itself marked a decline from the 10-million-plus of both 1998’s Wide Open Spaces and 1999’s Fly. Would Home have gotten into 10-million-plus territory without the Bush-related backlash? Probably, since the uproar kicked in right as the 2003 tour started, and that had to affect the album’s commercial prospects.
The film itself doesn’t shy away from the truth. It gets into the album’s reception as well as the poor sales for the Chicks’ 2006 tour. No, it doesn’t dwell on these issues, but it doesn’t avoid them either. At no point does Sing attempt to wrap a big, shiny, happy bow around the Chicks circa 2006. It leaves them as a band in flux as they continue to deal with the fallout from Maines’ statement and the ways that incident affected their careers.
All of these factors allow Sing to become a pretty interesting documentary. As someone without much interest in the Dixie Chicks, I think it drags at times, but it focuses enough on their controversies to make it intriguing for a non-fan. It ends up as a stimulating and provocative “all access” view of a bizarre set of events.