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For the past decade, the Hot Rod Power Tour has celebrated the highways and byways of the United States, as well as the classic cars and muscle machines that explored these far-reaching blacktop territories. Lasting seven to nine days, and traversing thousands of miles over this great land of ours, the Power Tour is a chance for owners and enthusiasts, weekend grease monkeys and outright automobile fanatics, to meet and greet others who share their fuel-injected obsession. Drawing people from each and every walk of life, and all parts of the world, this cross-country trek provides the ultimate road trip experience. The drivers convoy, moving from city to city, picking up and dropping off participants along the way. Some stay for a couple of stops. Others are determined to make the entire trip, no matter the condition of their vehicles, the motorized or personal problems they face, or the waning wanderlust of an increasingly modernized society. It's just important for them to bond with likeminded gear heads—to share a beer and a story, and reminisce about when and how the automobile helped redefine a nation.
The Power Tour celebrated a special year in 2001. In a tribute to its 75-year history as one of America's mythic motorways, the famous "mother road" Route 66 became the itinerary inspiration for the latest two-lane adventure. Since modern maps no longer carry directions for this legendary thoroughfare, the organizers created a circuit that mimicked as closely as possible the original thruway experience. Starting in Pontiac, Michigan, and making stops in Joliet and Effingham, Illinois, Springfield, Missouri, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Amarillo, Texas, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Kingman, Arizona before winding up in San Bernardino, California, thousands of driving devotees made the joyful journey. Filmmaker and director John Stefanic decided to record this momentous occasion, and the resulting 52-minute documentary, American Hot Rod, is now available from Libertad Entertainment. While not a groundbreaking work of non-fiction cinema by any far stretch of the imagination, this is a pleasant, professional look at an entire subculture of old-school car aficionados.
This isn't some Pimp My Ride extravaganza or tricked-out take on overhauling your pathetic Pinto. This is a serious look at an equally intense group of people who love just about everything about the American automobile (no foreign fender benders need apply here). These are individuals who defend cruising, relish in the reality of drag racing, and can't get enough of interstate speed challenges; men and women who fell in love with cars as kids and never got the smell of octane or axle grease out of their memories. Indeed, almost each of the five senses is fed on the Power Tour: the way the vehicles look and sound; the manner in which these handmade hobby rods handle and feel. About the only way the folks cannot experience their fixation is in the taste category, but you can just imagine the tangy taste of self-satisfaction that comes when a fellow garage guru admires your work with that twinge of cheerful jealousy. It has to be better than a steak, judging from the look on most of the participants' faces.
Indeed, there is a lot of ego and energy tied up in these overgrown toys, from their almost magical designs (some of these engineers out-innovate Detroit when it comes to shape and form) to the throwback worship of the badass body types from the past. There is nothing really wrong with recapturing one's youth, and many of these weekend wrench pushers are indeed old enough to draw on their original memories of the motorcars to fortify their focus. But there are a surprising amount of young people featured too, kids obviously drawn to the same things that keep the veterans vital—the performance of a high powered engine, the smell of rubber burning on the roadway, the sound of a gearbox as the clutch releases and the drive train catches and screams to life. From the unique paint jobs to the whacked-out weirdness of many of the more auspicious modification attempts (some of these prototypes look barely museum-ready, let along road-capable), the Power Tour is chrome-plated overload for the crazed car buff. And American Hot Rod captures it all very well.
There really isn't that much more to this presentation. We do meet a great many interesting individuals along the way, all of whom have appealing stories about their vehicles and themselves. But Stefanic really doesn't stay on them for long, never allowing us the chance to really connect and identify with them. Also, for a documentary about these cool cars, and the cities they visit, we really get nothing more than a cursory glance at both. Sometimes, a surreal looking auto (a white futuristic low-riding sedan from an older Canadian man is a good example) gets a montage moment or two, but the camera never lingers long enough to make the proper impact. What we do witness, however, in all their wonder, are the wide-open vistas of the amazingly vast United States. Occasionally, our country feels like an ever-shrinking island, a place where technology and the media have manufactured a claustrophobic sense of closeness. What American Hot Rod proves is that, once you gain access to the outdoors and point your grillwork toward the horizon, America opens up into an enormous canvas of experiences and possibilities. The backdrops are indeed inviting throughout this film, and Stefanic is smart enough to let them languidly amble by, speaking volumes for their value and variety. While the rest of this journey may just be a high tech scrapbook for Power Tour participants, American Hot Rod does do its native land proud.
Presented in a 1.33:1 full screen transfer, the American Hot Rod image here is handheld camcorder acceptable throughout. This movie is never going to win a cinematography award, and there are far too many home movie conceits in the framing and compositions to really give us a cinematic experience. But the picture is color correct and filled with defining details, so while not completely professional, this is no amateur slop trough either. Sonically, the sound is basic and not very bold. The Dolby Digital Stereo is flat, more of less mono retrofitted to play out of the front three channels simultaneously. The choice of music is very good (a lack of credits mean that no one gets singled out for praise—sorry) and the conversations with the participants are clearly understandable. Sadly, there are no bonuses here, no maps of Route 66, information about the Power Tour (there is one every year), or history of the event or the highway. All of these would seem like mandatory supplements for a DVD release of this kind. But since this is less of a compendium and more a souvenir of a sensational cross-country experience, the lack of context can be expected, and forgiven.
There have been many epics fashioned out of traveling along the open road—books and poems, songs and films that emphasize the independence and the unfathomable lure of the highway. David Byrne called them the cathedrals of our time in True Stories. Add in the long-term love affair with the four wheels and engine enigma that is the car, and you've got a potent pair of fact film subjects. American Hot Rod never quite makes good on this promising premise, but anyone interested in the Power Tour, or the people who populate it, will definitely enjoy this entertaining excursion.
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