Judge Dan Mancini doesn't know about the heart and soul of the good ol' US of A, but Huey Lewis has assured him the heart of rock 'n' roll is still beating.
The American Dream—As Lived by Everyman
Louis Schwartzberg's documentary, America's Heart and Soul is a patchwork quilt of a film both in structure and feel. It's constructed of ultra-brief biographical sketches of a variety of Americans who represent different races, regions, and socioeconomic statuses; its tone is cozy and homespun. The heart and soul of Americans, according to Schwartzberg, is our pursuit of freedom in all facets of life from work, to leisure, to our dreams and aspirations. It is our "freedom to be weird" that sets us apart. And so we witness an eccentric cowboy on the Continental Divide; a Cajun musician whose Louisiana roots go back seven generations; an Appalachian weaver who takes an almost Zen approach to her work; a Vermont dairy farmer who moonlights as a folk musician and independent filmmaker; Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's, who explains his business is about meeting a need, not making money (I don't know—much as I love ice cream, I'm relatively certain I could live a long and healthy life without it); a coal miner; a hat-maker; a chair-maker; a vineyard owner; a 70-year-old oil well firefighter; a small-time rock band on the super-slow track to superstardom; a fearless New York City bike messenger; New Orleans brothers Satchmo and Trombone Shorty who keep each other and the city's long jazz tradition alive; folks who decorate their cars in outlandish fashion for the Berkeley Art Car Festival; a dude who entertains the laid-back residents of his tiny snow-bound town by shooting stuff with his homemade cannons; an acrobatic stunt pilot; the Bandaloop Cliff Dancers; Olympic boxer Michael Bennett; a guy who transforms old transmissions and other metal junk into folk art sculptures; a Native American who rehabilitates injured eagles; a Jewish clarinetist keeping the Klezmer music tradition alive; a blind mountain climber; and a wheelchair racer with cerebral palsy who runs the Boston Marathon every year with his father.
Schwartzberg—who produced and directed the documentary—is an accomplished cinematographer with an eye for beauty and style. His film is loaded with time-lapse photography, helicopter shots, crane shots, perfectly-executed dollies, slow- and fast-motion. Combine all that with the lush and varied expanse of the American landscape and the results are visually stunning. Unfortunately, the movie's beauty is also its biggest problem. All the filmmaker's technique is too immaculate, too precise, for the brief and simple human stories he's telling. It makes these real people seem fake, products of camera, lighting, and editing. Moreover, self-conscious style elements are out of step with Schwartzberg's happy dream of America, which looks backwards to the 19th century in a way—his subjects are almost uniformly close to the land, intimately attached to nature, and don't appear to spend a lot of time watching television, hanging out at Starbucks, or eating at McDonalds. These people live well outside the bustling Internet and cell phone culture familiar to most of us. Fair enough, I suppose, since the film's title tells us it isn't interested in showing us America as it is, but an idealization, a warm and fuzzy dream. But the movie's style and content are mismatched. Joel McNeely's sweeping, romantic score adds to the feeling these regular American folk aren't being shown to us so much as they're being sold to us. It barges in and demands the cockles of our hearts be warm, though perhaps the stories themselves could've achieved the same end in much subtler fashion had they been allowed to do so. It's fitting that America's Heart and Soul is distributed by Disney because its as shiny and antiseptic as the USA Pavilion at Epcot Center, or a Hall of Regular Folk at the Magic Kingdom. The people aren't Animatronic, but the heavy sheen of Schwartzberg's studied technique makes it seem as if they are.
All of that fine technique looks gorgeous on DVD. The film is offered at an anamorphically-enhanced 1.85:1 aspect ratio, as well as open matte full screen. Both transfers offer a sharp image with fully-saturated colors, and squeezing them onto a single dual-layered disc hasn't produced negative side-effects like compression artifacts. There is some haloing from a tad too much edge enhancement, but it's a far cry from the worst I've ever seen. Audio is a robust Dolby 5.1 track that is crystal clear and offers a perfect presentation of McNeely's music, as well as tunes by John Mellencamp, John Hiatt, and Smashmouth. Directional panning isn't used much, but the rear speakers are always in play, making the audio experience full and enveloping. The source doesn't reach way down into the lowest frequencies, but bass response in the music is crisp and full. True subtitles aren't included, but Closed Captions in English for the hearing impaired are.
Louis Schwartzberg provides a feature-length commentary on the disc, as well as the nine-minute featurette "In Search of America's Heart and Soul," which is essentially a video interview with the producer/director. Four musical numbers that appear in edited form in the feature are offered in their entirety as extras, including a beautifully-filmed salsa dance number; dairy farmer George Woodard's folk tune, "Dreams Come True"; "Chusen Kale Mazel Tov" by Klezmer musician David Krakauer; and "Cheryl" by tenacious rock band Waltham.
America's Heart and Soul wants to be a feel-good paean to the regular folk all over the country who do their particular and often peculiar things with unshakable passion. Unfortunately, it's only a hollow and often emotionally manipulative showcase for Louis Schwartzberg's exquisite skill behind the camera.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Louis Schwartzberg
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