In the time it would take to untie your shoes, Natalie Maines, lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, made a public statement that fans and media alike tore apart for months afterwards. During a London concert in 2003, as America was beginning its invasion of Iraq, she admitted to the audience: ‘We’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.’
Maines’ words struck New York filmmaker Barbara Kopple, who says of the country trio, ‘After I heard that comment, I thought they were amazing.’ Sensing the cinematic possibilities surrounding the outspoken group, she contacted them in the hopes of shooting a doc about them. ‘I was really drawn to the story of the Dixie Chicks, not only because they’re interesting and illuminating characters, but they’ve also become the center of a larger political debate, and as a filmmaker that’s really important to me,’ furthers Kopple, who has been making docs for roughly three decades with Cabin Creek Films. Subjects like freedom of speech and human rights are strongly reflected in her filmography: in 1976, Kopple embedded herself between coal miner strikers and strikebreakers for the Oscar-winning Harlan County, U.S.A.; and in American Dream (1990), she dove into the working-class American Midwest during a period of economic decline.
It took persistence to infiltrate the societies portrayed in those films, and Kopple used that same skill to get the Chicks to agree to be filmed for what became Shut Up & Sing. Though content with an online group that was already recording their activities, the band finally gave Kopple and codirector Cecilia Peck the go-ahead in 2005. ‘So we went and talked to them,’ Kopple recalls, ‘and we said: ‘We have to film everything you’re doing with your album, we have to film personal stuff, your families, all those things.” She wasn’t kidding – one of the Chicks was pregnant and the birth became part of the film.
Shut Up, which has sold into the UK, Europe and Australia, follows both those intimate moments, as well as the ensuing chaos after Maines’ infamous comment. ‘It’s a human film,’ explains Kopple, ‘and really looks at the human cost of when you stand up and do something.’
Known for her ability to get to a subject’s core, Kopple has done several other music-related films. In My Generation (2000), for example, she looks at the Woodstock festivals in 1969, 1994 and 1999. Not just a concert doc, Generation ‘was more about using the music as a vehicle that brings people together and allows them to have a sense of community and ritual.’ And with Wild Man Blues, the 1998 doc that looks at director Woody Allen’s European jazz tour, ‘it was more the story of Woody and his relationship with Soon-Yi and how he seems very shy and awkward with people sometimes, but when he plays the clarinet, he just plays with wild abandon.’
Capturing a person’s essence, as Kopple has done in so many of her docs, is something she also tries to achieve in her commercial work, to which she recently returned now that Shut Up is completed. ‘In documentary, you’re always trying to get a sense of truthfulness, and so in your spots – because that’s part of how you think and who you are – that same thing comes through.’ Before diving into post on Shut Up, Kopple directed some Merck pharmaceutical spots for DDB New York and several spots for Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty via commercial prodco Nonfiction Spots & Longform.
Reflecting on the documentary scene, Kopple says, ‘I feel we live in very serious times, and very dangerous times, and people want non-fiction films that struggle to go beneath the surface and try to find the heart of the story. For our society at large, these kinds of films are starting to mean a lot more to people.’ Especially when they expose individuals not willing to shut up.