America’s Heart and Soul (2004)

A review by Jeffrey Overstreet

Producer and director – Louis Schwartzberg; director of photography – Louis Schwartzberg; editors – Brian Funck, Tom McGah and Jeff Werner; music – Joel McNeely with theme song, ”The World Don’t Bother Me None,” written and performed by John Mellencamp. Starring – George Woodard, Charles Jimmie Sr., the Vasquez Brothers, Frank and Dave Pino, John Yacobellis, Patty Wagstaff, Paul Stone, Ed Holt, Weirton Steelworkers, the Rev. Cecil Williams, David Krakauer, James Andrews and Trombone Shorty, Mark and Ann Savoy, Dan Klennert, Michael Bennett, Erik Weihenmayer, Mosie Burks, Ace Barnes and James Tuppin, Ben Cohen, Minny Yancy, Roudy Roudebush, Rick and Dick Hoyt and Amelia Rudolph. Walt Disney Pictures. 88 minutes.

We have a choice this weekend: We can  follow the lines to the heavily-advertised movies topping the box office right now. Or, we can do something different. We can take a risk, try something new, and discover one of the year’s most delightful surprises.

Now stick with me on this. I know it sounds suspicious. I, too, saw the previews. They caused me to approach America’s Heart and Soul expecting to be doused with syrupy sentimentality, clichés, and empty platitudes about our nation’s greatness. I was quite surprised to find something else.

Just imagine if an experienced cinematographer invited you over for the evening to show you his favorite footage from a career of capturing moments of stunning natural beauty. His creativity is driven by a love for his country and strong curiosity about people. Who could be so coarse and hard-hearted as to complain about that?

Sadly, quite a few film critics are really showing how deeply cynical and unable to appreciate simple pleasures they’ve become. But really, America’s Heart and Soul couldn’t have come at a better time. Moviegoers are currently choosing between a sophomoric and insulting comedy, a documentary full of half-truths and slander, and a romantic comedy that looks like a TV movie of the week. Disney, believe it or not, has delivered a far more rewarding choice.

The movie treats us to a whirlwind tour of the nation through the romantic, colorful, gravity-defying cinematography of director Louis Schwartzberg. Schwartzberg insists that his film is not a documentary, but rather a sort of travel journal, in which he has chronicled the most amazing discoveries from his journeys with a camera. For just over 90 minutes, we’re introduced to one amazing person after another, each one with a life story that will impress and intrigue you. You’ll wish you could slow the movie down and dig deeper into each story, spending more time with each person. If the world was fair, Schwartzberg’s movie would become enormously successful, and he’d deliver a deluxe DVD package that would treat us to special programs on each of the people he investigates here. They’ve all done extraordinary things with their lives, things that will make you laugh out loud and gasp in awe. It’s a wonderful, inspiring tour that reminds us of that America really does give us opportunities that could not be explored anywhere else.

No, I’m not talking about flag-waving and history lessons. This is a cinematographer’s diary, full of gorgeous landscapes and people you’ll want to travel across the country to meet.

Take this journey, and you’ll meet a guy who’s free to spend his life doing performance art by stacking up television sets in the middle of the road and then rolling explosive-filled bowling balls at them. You’ll be treated to a pilot’s eye view of the experience of the world’s most accomplished, death-defying stunt flyer. And we’ll go along on a breathtaking ice climb with a man who has clawed his way up the highest summits in the world. And he’s blind.

We meet two brothers who bring their own special blend of jazz to a New Orleans neighborhood, an ex-con who became and an Olympic champion boxer and then went on do something even more amazing, a family of Latinos who put the spice in salsa dancing, a rug weaver whose hands seem guided by the Holy Spirit, and a guy who left L.A. to make a life as a farmer while continuing to pursue his ambitions as an actor. One by one, you meet people who surprise you and then, before their story is over, they surprise you again.

It’s refreshing to see some “reality” footage that isn’t some contrived contest, some celebration of superficiality and lust, some competition driven by financial gain. It’s a window into the lives of people who live nextdoor to you and me, and who have done unlikely things with the gifts God gave them.

America’s Heart and Soul is being treated as if it’s a desperate attempt by Disney to interrupt the success of Michael Moore’s George W. Bush-bash-a-thon. It’s not. These interviews took place before September 11th, 2001, and it took Schwartzberg a while to pull it together into a film. What is more, he did it without turning it into a political statement. The film should inspire fans of John Kerry as much as it inspires supporters of George W. Bush. It’ll inspire everyone but those who are so cynical that they’ve can’t believe anything good comes out of Disney studios.

Schwartzberg keeps things sweet and simple. We don’t hear sob stories about the weak and downtrodden. We don’t see the hopeless or the homeless-that’s not the subject of the movie. We see the folks who dedicate their lives to helping those who need it, serving those who are lost, entertaining and inspiring those in their communities. Granted, he avoids digging into the depth and complexities of the real problems facing this country and this world. But again-that’s not his subject. His subject is creative freedom-the things that are possible when free individuals pursue their passions with invention, resourcefulness, and determination.

You’ll discover Berkley, California’s art car festival. You’ll discover the breathtaking art of cliff dancing. In one of the year’s most exhilarating action scenes, you’ll take a ride with the king of New York’s daredevil bike messengers.

You’ll stop and ask yourself, what makes me distinctive? What is it that I’ve been given? What more can I do with my life?

No, it’s not the deepest, most profound work of filmmaking. But it’s far more rewarding and uplifting than most movies you’ll see this year.

America’s Heart and Soul is a joy. While I personally have an aversion to the bombastic soundtrack that sews the scenes together, and while some of the philosophizing offered by the individuals about their lives strikes me as shallow and sentimental, watching them work makes these minor problems forgettable and forgivable.

After the film, though, I’m left with some nagging questions. Yes, America is a great place. Yes, our freedoms give us opportunities to pursue our dreams. But I’m especially impressed by those “heroes” in the film who seem concerned about “the pursuit of service” instead of just “the pursuit of happiness.”

Happiness is based on temporal things, and the pursuit of it is self-serving. Joy, on the other hand, comes from casting off our cares and surrendering to a higher call. It comes from obedience to the Creator, who set an example by laying his own life down to serve us, by making himself nothing. Joy comes from serving, from contributing to the good of someone else. It comes from a sense of being loved by God, and from seeking to please God by pursuing more than the satisfaction of our appetites. The stories in America’s Heart and Soul are many and varied, and I’m most moved by those concerning people who have experienced highs and lows and have chosen a different path: love. They strive to liberate those imprisoned by weakness, sin, and physical limitations.

Thus, the different characters Schwartzberg has immortalized in his film provide us with plenty of food for thought and discussion. America’s Heart and Soul is a film for the whole family, and one that you’d be unfortunate to miss.

For Disney to invest in such an unlikely, honest, independently developed movie is an encouraging sign. It gives me hope that something nourishing can still make its way through the studio system. Sometimes even jaded, suspicious moviegoers like me can be caught off guard.

Invite your friends, take your family, and make a memorable Fourth of July by showing your support for this risky little picture.

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