‘Not Ready to Make Nice’

Filmmaker Cecilia Peck appeared at the Malibu Pier Monday night for a screening of her documentary, "Shut Up & Sing," about the aftermath of the Dixie Chicks' criticism of the president and the Iraq war. Photo by Jacob Margolis / TMT

Filmmaker Cecilia Peck talks about the making of “Shut Up & Sing,” about the aftermath of the Dixie Chicks’ criticism of the president and the Iraq war, which screened Monday night at Malibu Pier.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

When Cecilia Peck set out to make a documentary on the top-selling female band in history, the Dixie Chicks, the country singers weren’t enthusiastic.

“Ah, we’re not interesting enough,” they thought.

Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Peck believed otherwise and talked the group into allowing her, along with her producing partner Barbara Kopple, to follow them on tour.

Then came lead singer Natalie Maines’ infamous, off-the-cuff comment at a concert in London in March 2003: “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”

The resulting tsunami of public condemnation for someone daring to criticize the president in the run up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq was unprecedented.

“Natalie stirred up some right-wingers,” Peck said Monday night at the Malibu Pier.

Santa Monica resident Peck was on hand at the pier for a screening of her 2006 Oscar-nominated documentary about the resulting Dixie Chicks controversy, “Shut Up and Sing,” as part of the summer film series at the Malibu Pier. She conducted a Q & A at the Malibu Inn after the screening.

“One of a documentarian’s biggest problems is gaining access to what you need to see for your film,” said Peck, who, with her chiseled cheekbones, dark features and eyes full of quiet intelligence, resembles her father, the late actor Gregory Peck. “The Dixie Chicks gave us total access.”

It shows in the film, as singers Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire are amused, then horrified at the reaction of their fan base, traditional Southerners. As the film chronicles, the group’s concerts were boycotted, copies of their CDs were publicly crushed under steamrollers, country radio stations banned their songs from airplay and they received death threats.

“Natalie’s entire home town of Lubbock, Texas turned against her just for speaking out against the war,” Peck said. “But isn’t that what we’re fighting for in Iraq? Freedom of speech?”

Such First Amendment sentiments notwithstanding, the Dixie Chicks saw their fortunes tumble, ticket sales plunge and withdrawal of their corporate sponsor, Lipton Teas. “While you are great musicians,” their Lipton representative said, “You are a brand.”

The controversy ended up in front of a Senate select committee with the band’s manager, Simon Renshaw, testifying that inappropriate corporate control of the airwaves was behind the attempts to deny Dixie Chicks airplay on the nation’s country format radio stations.

“The thing that was surprising to me was I saw that the Chicks had many opportunities to cave and say, ‘I’m sorry,’ ” Peck said. “But they rose to the occasion and were continually inspiring.”

As the Chicks sing, “We go through the good, the bad and the ugly together.”

Peck and Kopple followed the Chicks for three years as they finished their Top of the World tour, endured public censure, had babies and holed up in Los Angeles to record “Taking the Long Way,” helmed by multiple Grammy award-winning record producer Rick Rubin.

Maines’ defiant response to one outraged country fan can be heard in the signature tune “I’m Not Ready to Make Nice.”

“How in the world can the words that I said

Send somebody so over the edge

That they’d write me a letter

Saying that I better

Shut up and sing

Or my life will be over”

“There was a grass roots hate group that was really scary,” Peck said. “But the Dixie Chicks just went deep down inside and recorded the best album ever.”

Indeed, “Taking the Long Way” went on to win a slew of Grammys, including the 2006 Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Producer of the Year.

“It was the number one album of the year, even after all the controversy,” Peck said.

But even with the downward turn of the Iraq war and President Bush’s declining popularity, sluggish ticket sales continued to dog the Chicks’ subsequent Accidents & Accusations Tour. An opinion page editor of the Waco Herald Tribune recently noted that “Shut Up & Sing” was still not available for rental at any local outlet in Texas.

“People were still not listening to them on country stations,” Peck said, shaking her head. “And they scaled back their tour by half because radio stations wouldn’t advertise them.”

Peck, along with the Chicks, believes the Grammy awards were an industry nod to the necessity of supporting freedom of speech. As the film shows, the concerts they played were filled with enthusiastic fans sporting signs that read “Natalie for President” and rebellious slogans of artistic freedom.

“Shut Up & Sing” was released last year in November and promptly won several film festival awards for best documentary. It was nominated in this category for the 2006 Academy Award and was barely edged out by Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Monday night’s audience at the pier was enthusiastically on board, however, when Maines is shown addressing a London audience: “We still are ashamed the president… is from Texas!” she shouted to whoops on screen and from the Malibu Pier.