“Just put your sneakers on and go. Go on the journey.”
New York native Barbara Kopple has been a vital and socially progressive voice in documentary filmmaking for the past three decades, bringing a compassionate and unblinking Mayslesian scrutiny to the lives of miners, meatpackers, professional musicians, journalists, and even disgraced boxing champ Mike Tyson. In her career-making hard-hat couplet Harlan County U.S.A. (1976) and American Dream (1990), Kopple illuminated two of the more shameful episodes in recent U.S. labor history, demonstrating an abiding sympathy for the struggles of ordinary people and a gimlet eye for the ironies and ignominies of economic oppression.
One of the founding members of the collaborative group that produced the nightmarish anti-war testimonial Winter Soldier (1972), a soldier’s-eye view of atrocities in Vietnam (and a doc with disturbing parallels to Bush Inc.’s recent misadventures in Iraq and at Guantánamo Bay), Kopple began making films while attending college in West Virginia. In 1973, she spent a year living in a small Kentucky town filming the ugly, embittered, ultimately violent conflict between workers seeking a union contract from their overlords at Eastover Mining Company, and the gun-wielding scabs sent into their midst by greedy coal operators and their lapdogs in local law enforcement. Kopple, who was targeted by one goon for hoisting a camera during an early-morning picket-line melee (a chilling incident plainly visible in the new Criterion DVD of the film), won an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1976 when Harlan County U.S.A. was released. Today, Harlan remains one of the most uncompromising depictions of class strife in American cinema, a gritty, fiery, visually dynamic testament to human dignity and the heroic spirit of resistance.
With her next film, American Dream, Kopple followed another labor standoff, this time between striking meatpackers at a Hormel plant in Minnesota and corporate negotiators who wanted to reduce their hourly wages and benefits drastically, despite a Reaganomically splendid year of profits. In contrast with the militant energy of Harlan, these workers’ journey is arduous and dispiriting, especially considering the devastating toll exacted on blue-collar families who make big sacrifices out of a sense of what’s right and fair, only to find themselves alienated, in financial limbo, and possibly worse off than before the contract dispute. Despite their own complicity in a factory system where bottom-line economics had become de rigueur by the mid 1980s (thanks to the advent of the almighty blockbuster), Academy voters responded favorably to Kopple’s heartrending, quietly compelling Dream and honored her with another Oscar.
Since then, Kopple has been active as a director and producer, working with leftie media critic Danny Schechter on two projects, 1992’s Beyond JFK: The Question of Conspiracy and the more recent political doc WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception(2004), which detailed how the mass media sold the war in Iraq to the public. Kopple directed two postmortems on the rebellious era of ’60s music, My Generation and its Pepsi-sponsored predecessor Woodstock ’94. But her biggest commercial success came with Wild Man Blues, an intimate portrait of filmmaker/clarinetist Woody Allen as he leads his New Orleans-style hot-jazz band on their 1996 tour of Europe. In 2005, on the heels of Bearing Witness, a collaborative doc for A&E about female journalists reporting from war zones, Kopple released Havoc, her first fiction feature. Starring Bijou Phillips and Anne Hathaway, and penned by Stephen Gaghan (Traffic, Syriana), the film details the troubling escapades of two well-heeled, hip-hop-lovin’ white girls from affluent Pacific Palisades who get out of their depth when they tangle with a group of Latino gangbangers from East L.A.
Her latest project, co-directed with Cecilia Peck, is Shut Up & Sing, a backstage portrait of the Dixie Chicks, the gutsy, wildly talented country-music sirens who told the Dark Prince of Pennsylvania Avenue and his neocon cohorts to take their war and shove it — sort of. In 2003, on the eve of the U.S. military’s shock-and-awe campaign to oust Saddam Hussein, lead singer Natalie Maines mused to a London audience, almost worrying out loud, “We don’t want this war, this violence.” When the sold-out crowd at Shepherd’s Bush Empire responded with cheers and applause, the Lone Star native added with a bit of Southern gumption, “We’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas,” a puckish remark caught on tape by the Chicks’ own video operators but never seen until the footage was given to Peck and Kopple. Within a week, Maines’s comment — mentioned in a lone AP wire report — sloshed through the mephitic tributaries of right-wing-activist Web portals like Free Republic, and eventually crested into a tsunami of indignation and outrage back home, a nasty turn of events that derailed the best-selling female artists just as they prepared to embark on the North American leg of their ironically named Top of the World tour. For better or worse, the Dixie Chicks had become, perhaps not martyrs for the cause of free speech, but cautionary emblems of the ominous watch-what-you-say attitude that was palpable in much of the nation in the lead-up to our then-popular unilateral war.
Shut Up & Sing toggles between the immediate aftermath of Maines’s off-the-cuff Bush slap — protests, CD burnings, a country-music-radio ban, talking-head bitchfests, death threats, tour-date cancellations, and the loss of roughly half of their die-hard fan base — and their road to renewal in 2006 recording Taking the Long Way With producer Rick Rubin. Glimpsed backstage, at home, and in strategic meetings with manager Simon Renshaw, Maines and her partners Emily Robison and Martie McGuire come across like the badass, fiddle-and-banjo-shredding glamazons they are onstage, making tough business decisions and working to manage their now-controversial image while also, in more private moments, hanging out with their families. What’s astonishing to see, aside from the strength of their sisterhood, is their tenacity in the face of crisis: Instead of cowing to the Nashville establishment that turned on them or issuing callow, insincere apologies to dismayed fans, the Chicks stick to their guns, declaiming their right to air a political opinion, however “inappropriate” it may be deemed to be.
Kopple and Peck wisely opt not to use voiceover and let these bold women speak for themselves, observing them work out the kinks in their career and, three years after the controversy, push ahead in a new creative direction. It’s hard not to admire the trio’s spunk and courage throughout the ordeal, especially the mercurial Maines. She’ll crack a blowjob joke, flip the bird at Bush’s image on TV, and put her foot down when it comes to “making nice” with radio programmers, CMT cable network, and others (like vapid C&W crooner turned Chick-bashing superpatriot Toby Keith) she now considers their enemies. But it’s also obvious that the hailstorm of abuse and financial hardship she’s brought down on their heads weighs heavily on her conscience. So when we see her finally bust out the lyrics to a new song, “Not Ready to Make Nice,” and she sings the line “How in the world/Can the words that I said/Send someone 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,” the grain of her voice — incredulous, defiant, resolute — and the cathartic release in her mad-as-hell refrain is literally hair-raising.
I spoke with Kopple, 60, in October, a few weeks after the triumphant world premiere of Shut Up & Sing at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, as distributor The Weinstein Company was gearing up for its nationwide theatrical release. Cordial, good humored, and very down to earth, Kopple talked about how she and Peck filmed the Chicks, why she was inspired by her subjects, and how the new film fits in with her body of work.
Damon Smith: Tell me the story of your involvement in this project.
Barbara Kopple: Cecilia Peck and I wanted to do a film about the Dixie Chicks even before “the comment.” They had these Web guys who were out there and they had just hired them to shoot little pieces for their Website. So they thought, Why would anyone want to make a film about us? Then the comment happened, so of course we wanted to do it even more. “Oh, we could have been there, we could have done it!” Anyway, they still weren’t ready for us. A bit later they decided yes, maybe what they have to say means something and that they would think about the idea of someone doing a documentary. So they spoke to us, and they spoke to other filmmakers as well, including Michael Moore and D. A. Pennebaker, and they picked us.
Then you signed on to do the film and traveled to … London?
Los Angeles. We met at Simon Renshaw’s office. He was out of town, so we didn’t get the wonderful experience of his presence. [Smiling]
At that point, what did you initially hope would come out of it?
You never think about that, doing a documentary. Because once somebody says to you, “OK, you can film us,” you come to it with absolutely no agenda. You try to allow these characters to take you on a journey with them. And that’s always the way that I approach filmmaking. When I got to do the Mike Tyson film [Fallen Champ], I just let every single thing I thought about Mike Tyson out of my head and started to allow the story to emerge, to follow it along. The same with Woody Allen [on Wild Man Blues]. It’s so key if you’re going to do something real and sincere.
We’re accustomed to seeing these three women superstars onstage in all their glittery glory. But behind the scenes, they turn out to be savvy strategists, and hard-driving businesswomen juggling everything from tour-sponsor jitters to a radio boycott, death threats, and tour-date cancellations. Did that surprise you?
Yeah, especially their business savvy and how they are women in control. That nobody tells them what to do totally fascinated me, and I loved every minute of it. Plus, I learned a lot about how the business works. But I think if I had to pick one element about them that moved me as a person, it’s their friendship and their bond. I look now at my life and think it is so important to connect with people. And that when things go wrong, not to run from it, but to pull together as a unit.
It’s amazing how rock solid they are. Martie says they are “a sisterhood”…
Two of them are sisters. [Laughs]
Right, but they are truly “undivided,” like Dan Wilson, the songwriter they’re working with, says at one point. Their show of solidarity in the Diane Sawyer interview, for instance, and not breaking rank under so much pressure was impressive.
They’re undivided in everything they do. Sure, they argue and discuss, but when it comes down to it, they are there for each other. And each one cares so much about the other. One of the most moving parts of the film is when Martie breaks down and cries and says “I would give up my career for Natalie” — if she wanted and needed it — to find some peace. What more of a friendship can you have than that, to give up everything you love for somebody else? The most intimate relationships between people aren’t like that.
Shortly after 9/11, press secretary Ari Fleischer said people should watch what they say.
Which he should have done! [Laughs]
Well, it’s interesting because I think in one sense his warning reflects the chill that came over the national media in the lead-up to the war. And also, it immediately raises the issue of free speech. Martie says that dissent “had to come from an unlikely voice,” from a place that is usually aligned with conservative feeling.
Right. The “all-American.” That’s so true. And that’s probably why country music got so mad at them, because they didn’t tow the line in a sense. Country music probably thought of them as very conservative [people], and when they came out like this I guess they felt betrayed by them. And then you also had groups like Free Republic and others doing massive organizing drives to boycott their music in many of the red states, and going online and saying some of the most horrific things about the Dixie Chicks imaginable. I spent many days reading the Free Republic Web site and was absolutely amazed. Last night, by the way, I was in Washington, and someone from Free Republic came and we put them on the panel! I couldn’t for the life of me get them to really talk about their ideas and talk about politics. It’s also an anonymous kind of group. But what he said was, he liked the film. He didn’t like the politics, but he liked the family stuff and his favorite scene was the Halloween [sequence]. So it was pretty interesting. And he’s going to write a review — a “good” review — of the film.
That must have been interesting for you, coming into contact with one of the Chicks’ nemeses.
Oh, I loved it. I mean, we were supposed to be talking to the audience, and there were quite a few people on this panel. And every time I got the mic, I would ask him a question. [Laughs]
Do you think the backlash would have been as vitriolic if it had happened to a male artist of the same stature?
Well, it’s hard to say, but I think probably not. I think they thought that they could set an example with the Dixie Chicks, that they would crumble. But I think they had no idea who they were dealing with.
One of the things that comes across — one of the most powerful elements of the film — is the personal and artistic transformation that this incident set into motion for the Dixie Chicks.
Yeah. And also seeing them mature over three years and become totally comfortable within their own skin, writing this wonderful album [Taking the Long Way, 2006] that deals with everything from politics to infertility to love, all of the universal themes that are so much about who we are.
I’m curious about something, because you followed that transformation, you captured it as it was happening. Did you ever think, when you first got involved after “the comment,” that you might be observing a meltdown or a capitulation on their part instead of a show of defiance?
The magic of documentary is that you don’t know and you just go with life and go with what happens. I mean, you would never come back from a shoot presupposing what you think would happen. The fascination and the excitement of documentary is that you don’t know, so why guess? Just put your sneakers on and go. Go on the journey.
Do you think that your presence emboldened them somehow?
No, they are emboldened all on their own. In fact, we tried to not be much of a presence. We tried to let them forget we were even there, because what they were doing in their lives and the things they were figuring out and the music they were writing or the relationships they were having with their families is what was important.
Was there any sense in which you think you affected them by filming what was happening to them personally and professionally?
I don’t think so. I think all of this would have gone on whether we were there or not there. I don’t think we mattered. [Laughs] As much I hate to say that.
You have an amazing body of work that you have received commendations for over the years: two Oscars, and more recently, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.
Yeah, that was something. Alan J. Pakula gave it to me.
A big moment.
For sure. And then a week later he died while driving up to the Hamptons. [Sad face]
How do you see this film fitting into your vision, your overarching goals and themes, from Winter Soldier and Harlan County to Wild Man Blues and Bearing Witness?
Well, I think that maybe the majority of the films that I do — not so much Wild Man Blues — but with many of the other films, it’s all about people who are fighting for social justice and people who are standing up for what they believe in, and people who won’t be silenced. And I think if there was a theme, that would be it. It’s also people whose stories you might not know — or who you might think of in a totally different way. I’m sure many of the people who’ll see this Dixie Chicks film would never have thought they would be so complex, so bright, such great businesswomen and so alive. They know that they’re talented, but not all the different complexities that make them who they are. You see them in a different light. I’m hoping the people who don’t agree with the Dixie Chicks, or with what they said, will see this film so they can understand where they’re coming from. Because it seems like in this country, and I don’t want to harp on about this, that we have a real sort of cowboy mentality. “You’re either with us or against us,” and that kind of thing. Dialogue has been lost, and communicating with another has been lost. So we need people like this more than ever to stand out there and say something.
There is that strain of defiance in your work. You seem to gravitate naturally toward people who are insurgent in some way, who’re resistant.
Or in crisis. [Laughs]
And recently you seem to have taken an interest in female combat journalists, with Bearing Witness and your current project.
Well, I never know what my next project is going to be. I don’t want to say too much about the new one.
How did the temporal structure of Shut Up and Sing aid in telling the story you wanted to tell?
Actually, we started to edit as we were shooting. We accumulated a lot of stock footage, we found stuff that was really amazing, such as when they were playing in the club. We didn’t leave a stone unturned. So it was very helpful to be filming still and editing at the same time. Not that it changed how the film was going to be, but the film was very hard to structure, because doing it in a linear way you really didn’t get to know them. So it was very important to us as filmmakers to be able to allow you to get to know them, feel who they were, feel their talent enough so that you would care what happened to them in 2003. And we take you to 2003 three different times, so it was hard also to make that structural leap to get you there. It was tricky.
Did it take you a long time to integrate into the Dixie Chicks operation?
No, we just showed up.
As a socially conscious documentarian, do you think that the left-leaning, agit-prop documentaries that are popular now — like those by Robert Greenwald and Michael Moore — are a good thing for the form?
I think that having lots of different styles and ways of expressing yourself is always incredible, because what you are trying to do is tell a story. And whether you tell a story with very sharp, hit-you-over-the-head images to get people’s attention, or you tell a story by allowing people’s lives to unfold and look at people on a human level, and from the human level go to politics, it’s all wonderful, whatever people take in. As documentarians, we are so supportive of each other and we care about each other and we look at each other’s rough cuts and comment because we want each other to succeed, because it’s been such a struggle to get our films out there. And finally, the public is catching up with our passion.
Shut Up and Sing will certainly be seen by a lot of people. What for you is the most important thing you hope people will take away from watching it?
That it’s really good to stand up for what you believe in and to never let anyone silence you or manipulate you. And no matter how bad you feel and how hard the times are, if you’re true to yourself, that’s what’s going to be important.