The pursuit of happiness. That's what Louis Schwartzberg, a stock cinematographer who took a break from shooting landscape and cityscape footage for Hollywood movies to roam the country collecting the two dozen portraits that make up America's Heart and Soul, has captured.
The point here is not to try to compile anything like a representative portrait or cross section of American life, if such a thing were even possible. Schwartzberg isn't interested in trends, demographics, pop culture, the job market, health insurance, the media or politics.
There are, of course, those who insist on reducing everything to politics, on finding political agendas everywhere. In this election year, with America's Heart and Soul opening one week after that other America-themed quasi-documentary (and being distributed by Disney, which refused to distribute Fahrenheit 9/11 through subsidiary Miramax), detractors will hurl terms like “jingoistic” and treat it as the equivalent of a re-election commercial for George W. Bush.
How sad. Sad that such acts as wrangling horses, delivering messages via bicycle, performing gymnastics on a cliff wall — or for that matter photographing people doing such things — should be claimed as a political act. The fact is, apart from a brief lament by an American steelworker, America's Heart and Soul is one of the least political documentary-type films (barring nature documentaries) I've ever seen. There's virtually nothing in this uplifting film to warrant such terms as liberal or conservative, isolationist or interventionist, jingoistic or America-bashing.
The term patriotic might apply, in the sense that the film celebrates American freedom and the unexpected myriad of ways Americans find to enjoy it — but not in any sense that need be felt to detract from other countries. The best adjective, though, would be simply “human.” America's Heart and Soul is a tribute to the endless diversity of ways in which human nature will engage in the pursuit of happiness as long as there is life and the liberty to do so.
In America, liberty includes the freedom to be a nut case if you want to. In the remote mountain town of Creede, Colo., a self-described “explosive artist” fends off monotony and cabin fever by entertaining his neighbors with such stunts as stacking old TV sets a dozen feet high and then rolling a flaming bowling ball into them, or loading a cannon with canned hams and then shooting them through a gauntlet of knives into waiting bread and condiments, with edible results. In California, aging hippies deck out their cars with mountains of the most hideous bric-a-brac imaginable until the cars become psychedelic floats in a parade of bad taste.
Liberty also includes the freedom for remarkable heroism. In Texas, septuagenarian Ace Barns continues his five-decade career as an oil-rig firefighter — a calling he's pursued ever since, working as an oil rigger himself, he was burned in an explosion that killed his partner. In Chicago, ex-con Michael Bennett turned his life around after a seven-year prison stint, becoming captain of the U.S. Olympic boxing team and mentoring youth at a local gym. “Stay in school, keep God first,” he writes when signing autographs.
For a film that isn't specifically about music, America's Heart and Soul finds a surprising number of its subjects involved in it. Whatever the reason, it's gratifying to see Americans making their own music, not just downloading iTunes or listening to Top 40.
The most entertaining of Schwartzberg's musical subjects are also the least professional. Brothers Dave and Frank Pino of small-town Waltham, Mass., play in a local rock band named after the town and self-deprecatingly mock their own would-be rock-star status while holding down blue-collar jobs. Though they play hard rock, they say, their dream is to do heavy metal, only “we're just not that tough.” In hilarious interviews, Dave gives a whirlwind tour of the carwash he works at but knows very little about, and Frank practices expressions in the rearview mirror of the truck he drives.
Other subjects are engaged in athletic pursuits, from a blind mountain climber who has climbed the world's highest mountains, to a troupe of athletes who rappel up cliff faces to perform choreographed gymnastic routines that look strangely like dancing in low gravity, to two brothers in Boston who compete in the Boston Marathon, one pushing his quadriplegic brother in a wheelchair. Still others are in a class by themselves, from Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's to an American Indian elder who nurses injured eagles back to health and releases them.
So many stories, so little time. With only a few minutes to devote to each subject, Schwartzberg creates a series of moving snapshots, not exploring any one individual or way of life in any real depth. There are no hard questions here, no probing for deeper answers or larger issues.
Curiously, while four or five segments deal with fraternal bonds, only one features a married couple (the Savoys) or a filial relationship (dairy farmer Woodard and his son). Also, only two subjects are expressly involved in religious organizations: an elderly black woman who sings in a gospel choir and a black pastor of a social-gospel-type church who proclaims, “We should stop trying to get folks to go to heaven or hell and get folks to live with each other here in the earth right now.” A couple of mentions of reincarnation are the film's only other signs of spirituality. It's a pretty flaky picture of faith in America (not that the reality isn't flaky, too, but still).
That said, America's Heart and Soul isn't about how people generally do live, or how they should live, but about the freedom to live as one chooses. Consistently engaging, at turns fascinating, touching and inspiring, it's a rare feel-good crowd-pleaser that isn't a contrived fantasy.
Given Schwartzberg's stock in trade, it's not surprising that the film is visually stunning. The purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain are on display in their full magnificence along with the steel and concrete canyons of New York and other locations. America's Heart and Soul is well worth seeking out on the big screen, even for people who don't often go to the movies. It's a film you can take your parents to and that older kids should appreciate as well.
Content advisory: Fleeting references to heavy drinking; some provocative dance footage; a couple of references to reincarnation; a deficient presentation of Christian ideas.
Steven D. Greydanus, editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com, writes from Bloomfield, New Jersey.