Kopple & Peck & the Dixie Chicks (10/30/06)

The photograph of filmmakers Barbara Kopple and Cecillia Peck  is from a video interview at the Toronto Film Festival about their new collaboration, Shut Up & Sing,  by Cinematical’s James Rocchi and Netscape’s Alexia Prichard  

Barbara Kopple got her start as part of the collective that filmed  Winter Soldier (1972), whose re-release I wrote about in conjunction with last year’s Virginia Film Festival.  She went on to win Oscars for Harlan County, U.S.A.  (1976) and American Dream ( 1991) about the Hommel meatpackes’ strike.  Now she has teamed up with Peck (Gregory’s daughter) to make a film on the changes that ensued after  a Guardian review  revealed that the Dixie Chicks’s lead singer, Natalie Maines, told an audience in London’s Shepherds Bush Empire Theatre on March 10,2003,

Just so you know,we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.

The context was the lead-up to the onset of Bush’s March 20 “shock and awe” of Iraq,  the plans of which had been revealed to CBS News on January 24.

The Chicks released an explaination on their website March 12:

We’ve been overseas for several weeks and have been reading and following the news accounts of our governments’ position. The anti-American sentiment that has unfolded here is astounding. While we support our troops, there is nothing more frightening than the notion of going to war with Iraq and the prospect of all the innocent lives that will be lost.” Maines further stated, “I feel the President is ignoring the opinions of many in the US and alienating the rest of the world. My comments were made in frustration and one of the privileges of being an American is you are free to voice your own point of view.

When conservative pundits and bloggers continued to denounce the Chicks,  Maines tried an apology on March 14:

As a concerned American citizen, I apologize to President Bush because my remark was disrespectful. I feel that whoever holds that office should be treated with the utmost respect. We are currently in Europe and witnessing a huge anti-American sentiment as a result of the perceived rush to war. While war may remain a viable option, as a mother, I just want to see every possible alternative exhausted before children and American soldiers’ lives are lost. I love my country. I am a proud American.”

At least one conservative, Cheri Landers, emailed The Guardian accepting the apology as published on March 19:

Have you ever shot your mouth off and wished you could take back what you said? I have, and I’m a 56-year-old female from a very stable conservative lifestyle. I mention my age and gender because I believe I have a perspective to offer. We are all empassioned Americans about the impending war. We’ve listened with fervor to every possible take of should we or shouldn’t we go into Iraq. We’ve debated, argued and soul searched over the agonizing possibilities. At first, I was taken aback with Natalie’s remark. Her mistake was making it outside of our borders. However, it is nothing that hasn’t been said across the board on our turf and outside our turf, just listen to the United nations right or wrong. She has apologized and I believe in good faith and dignity.

Others continued  fanning the flames and the number one group saw its record sales drop and its songs banned from country radio.

*

In an interview published by IndieWIRE on October 24, Kopple talks Brian Brooks about how she came to make the movie:

Before the Chicks set out on their 2003 Top of the World Tour, this is pre-Bush comment, Cecilia Peck and I wanted to do a film of their tour with the idea of trying to follow them on the road. The Chicks already had a crew that was doing short web pieces for their homepage and didn’t feel they could take us along. In late 2004 the Chicks came back to us saying they wanted to have a film created out of all the footage that was shot on that tour. I knew they were writing their new album and that it would be a response to their experiences from the backlash against them. I was of course extremely interested in their story but I didn’t want it to be solely about the comment and its immediate aftermath, I wanted to see how this experience changed them as humans and musicians. So, we filmed them recording their new album and everything else that occurred so that the film will give a full picture from 2003 through 2006.

She then talked about here approach and the results:

I don’t go into a film with any particular agenda–I rarely know how a film will end when I start filming. But [I] often do have a point of view on the subject–in other words, I know that I support free speech, and that I respect the Dixie Chicks for not backing down in the face of intimidation and threats. I felt that this film had a lot of potential to be fun and entertaining and also make some important points at the same time.

So I was excited to start shooting, and also to start sifting through the stock footage and the footage that had already been recorded. Some material dated back to before the famous “incident.” We shot a lot of new footage–of the Chicks writing new songs, back in the recording studio putting together their very personal and artistic response to the last few years, and working with legendary producer Rick Rubin. We also filmed with their families in intimate moments that really get at the heart of who these incredible women are.

Like so many nonfiction films, the story really came together in the edit room. We had an amazing edit staff, and we were able to weave the two time periods (2003 and 2005) in a way that I think really highlights both the Dixie Chicks’ personal experiences and the political significance of their story.

As the project evolved–in the field and in the edit room–I think we all came to see this experience of the Dixie Chicks as a lens through which to see the current political climate in America. We’re living in a time when the freedoms we take for granted–the freedom of speech, the freedom to protest and dissent–are truly in danger. I think the story of the Dixie Chicks really encapsulates the risks we face–and at the same time shows that when you stand up for your rights, people will be there to support you, and follow your lead.

*

Last Friday, October 27,  Reuters’s Steve Gorman reported at 7:15 p.m. (time from Reuters site)  in “NBC rejects TV ads for Dixie Chicks film” (link from Washington Post) an irony almost too good to be true:  not only NBC, but  CW were banning ads on Shut Up & Sing.

But AP’s television writer Steve Bauder (email)  got this story right .  Even though he filed earlier, at 5:56,  he reported Alan Wurtzel, head of standards and practices at NBC, who admitted that   network policy refused ads on issues of public controversy like abortion or the war.  He continued, that Weinstein Co. had not asked about buying commercial time and that when an ad is rejected, as was the case of another Weinstein project, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11,  prospective advertisers return and work with the network on ways to make it acceptable.

But NBC heard nothing more from makers of “Shut Up & Sing” until portions of what NBC executives thought were confidential business correspondence showed up in a news release, he said.

“There was no attempt to come back and have a conversation,” Wurtzel said. “There are times when some advertisers get more publicity for having their ad rejected.”

And  Nicole Sperling and Kimberly Nordyke of the Hollywood Reporter  also took the time to check with the stations before writing their piece the same date, “Weinstein Co. hits NBC, CW over ‘Shut Up’ ad”  While they failed to reach NBC,  CW Spokes man Paul McGuire said that the  network had been in conversations with the Weinstein Co.  but never progressed beyond where on the CW schedule the spot would run.

The release is flat-out inaccurate.  The whole matter is rather a mystery to us.

LA Times staff writer Richard Verrier also took the time to try and reach the networks.  In ” Band’s film ads hit sour note” on October 27 he reports McGuire said Weinstein Co.’s ad agency inquired about running a spot, but chose not to.

They weren’t interested in running a national spot on the CW. What’s in their press release is a mystery. It’s inaccurate.
 

The winners of the real reporting award, however, in addition to Bauder,  are  Variety’s  Los Angeles reporter Pamela McClintock (email) and its television editor Joe Adalian (email).  In their “Prickly Peacock nixes Chicks: NBC cancels ads for Dixie docu ‘Sing'” filed at 10:00 p.m. on the same night as the Weinstein press release, they report that CW’s  McGuire rejected Weinstein’s version of events:.

That’s not true. The spot was not declined. In fact, we were told they were not going to make a national spot buy on CW.

They also obtained an email exchange between a media buyer for TWC and a CW standards and practices rep  and report that it seems to back up CW’s version.  

The CW reps asks the media buyer if “you have a buy with us for the Dixie Chicks movie?” The ad rep for TWC replies, “We do not currently have a national buy with CW.”

And I had my sense of manufactured irony confirmed,  when The Washington Post’s television columnist, Cynthia de Moraes in  her  October 29 article “Unaired Ad Gets Dixie Chicks Flick A Whole Lot of Ink” even disclosed the title of Weinstein’s memo:

“In an Ironic Twist of Events, NBC and the CW Television Networks Refuse to Air Ads for Documentary Focusing on Freedom of Speech.”

De Moraes concludes:

When a small movie like this one gets a very limited release — just four theaters this weekend — with the intention of going wide after that, word of mouth is critical and that’s when you often see stealth marketing campaigns, such as whipping the media into a froth over some angle

*

Since that time, pr strategist Brian Reich (bio) has written in his blog Thinking About Media an Ocotber 28 entry  “Shut Up & Run the Ads”

Give credit to Weinstein and Co. for recognizing the opportunity to use the news cycle to promote their movie.  It is not a new strategy — MoveOn got into a similar fight with CBS around the Super Bowl a couple of years ago, and I have had clients whose online ads that venues have refused to run because of an arbitrary content standard.  In both cases press coverage resulted and the message ultimately got to the target audience. I don’t think it will work for any movie or event, but its a strategy that more organizations should understand and pursue.

Cynthia Allen’s October 29  entry  in NYU’s forum, “Thinking About Media” commends the Post editors for de Moraes column.

But, I wonder what Kopple, Peck, the Dixie Chicks and their fans think about  Weinstein’s huckster tactics.  It seems to me even the mostly thought-free hubbub raised at Think Progress (449 comments as I write this) displaces proper attention to the content and form of this thoughtful film or the album that it documents.

Who is linking to Damon Smith’s review in yesterday’s Boston Globe,  “Filming some tough Chicks” or Ann Powers (email) October 27 review in the L.A. Times.

I hope this film will come to Roanoke soon after its November 10 national release.  I’m not confident, given how the Grandin balked at showing Going Up River.  What Reich forgets is that the pr can lose screens, as well as gain them.  But here’s hoping.  In the meantime, I close with this from Power’s review:

Anti-Chicks activists and rationalizing radio programmers get face time, but Kopple and Peck’s view is not unbiased. Clips of Bush make him seem callous. Protesters come off as foolish; one demands that her tiny, puzzled son repeat an expletive directed at the Chicks.

Despite its clear perspective, “Shut Up & Sing” is not agitprop. Instead, it echoes Kopple’s greatest work — the Oscar-winning documentary about a 1974 Kentucky miners’ strike, “Harlan County U.S.A.” — in showing in painful detail how regular people rise to meet an extraordinary occasion. It just happens that these regular people are also superstars

 

 

 

 

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