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America's Heart & Soul DVD Review

America's Heart & Soul (2004) movie poster America's Heart & Soul

Theatrical Release: July 2, 2004 / Running Time: 88 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Louis Schwartzberg

Tagline: The American Dream - As Lived By Everyman.

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In more normal times, documentary films don't make much of a splash with the general moviegoing public. But this past summer, Michael Moore's critical Fahrenheit 9/11 made headlines as it shattered box office records for documentaries. Moore's film presented harsh and pointed arguments against the current American administration,
and when Disney refused to distribute the film with its Miramax branch, a new independent film controversy was born. With Fahrenheit atop the box office in its opening weekend, it was inevitable that people would look to the documentary Disney would release to theaters the following weekend for comparative purposes.

On the surface, that documentary appeared to be everything that Fahrenheit 9/11 was not - optimistic, free from controversy, and celebratory of America's people and the nation's ideals. Most importantly, this was a documentary that Disney was okay with releasing. When the film America's Heart & Soul took in a gross of just $135,000 and finished in 26th place its opening weekend, people should not have been surprised. Even with the rise in consciousness from Moore's Disney dilemma being in the news, Heart & Soul was still a documentary, with a tiny theater count (under 100) and no specific flashy topic to draw people in the way a particular animal species or location headlining an IMAX documentary might.

Still, the media took some notice at America's Heart & Soul's underperformance in stark contrast to the over-$100 million-grossing Fahrenheit, and Disney's documentary wound up with some kind of a stigma. Whether that stigma is of jingoism, conservatism in a liberal-dominated Hollywood system, or simply being the antithesis to Michael Moore, America's Heart & Soul doesn't really merit it. That's mostly because this documentary doesn't make much of an impression and partly because it doesn't really push any ideology beyond celebrating "ordinary" American adults sometimes engaging in unusual hobbies and careers.

The first person profiled: Roudy Roudebush, a gruff cowboy and former alcoholic. Now he rides into the bar on horse to take his favorite drink: water. This guy, one of many who partake in Berkeley's annual art car festival, believes that if Jesus returns, this is what he'd drive. Can you spot Prince Ali?

If that doesn't sound like the most focused or appealing premise, that's because it's not. There's no fodder for political discourse and the domain is not a hotbed to spark a wide range of emotions. Who is really going to root against a reformed criminal who now spends his days as an Olympic boxer and mentor to city children? For that matter, who is really going to take an interest in this story and the dozens others, when the subjects are neither compelling nor universal?

Louis Schwartzberg's documentary is nice-looking, but its content is shallow. The film is clearly supposed to inspire with its collection of profiles from a cross-section of American people. But is that it? Is the message that humanity...is special? Furthermore, I think (and hope) that the average American person is more interesting and likable than most of these characters depicted here.

America's Heart & Soul opens with short profiles of pretty unremarkable characters from the so-called heartland areas - a moody ex-alcoholic cowboy, an accordion player who believe he's the reincarnation of a Neanderthal, a passionate gospel singer. You may be willing to give the film some leeway in finding its groove early on. But even if its tone becomes a little more defined and its content gets a bit more interesting, it sticks to this not very successful formula of very briefly profiling various people from different parts of the nation.

At night, this Pino brother jams on the guitar with his band in front of screaming bar audiences. In the day, he's a cool dude who works at a car wash and gets away with watching "Fast Times at Ridgemont Hight" a lot. The logo for "Jurassic Park IV"? Nope, it's junk artist Dan Klettert at work on another creation in Elbe, Washington.

There are some (as infrequent as they may be) amusing personalities, such as the happy-go-lucky Massachussetts guy who is band member by night and Fast Times at Ridgemont High-watching car wash employee during the day. Or the folks who turn their automobiles into a moving display of paraphernalia to be appreciated at an annual art car festival in Berkeley, California. Later on in the film, a few more of the individuals stand out for their unique stories,
such as the blind mountain climber and the team of father and handicapped son who race in marathons together. But when you consider as a whole the more than twenty people profiled, very few actually connect with the viewer. The situations are mostly conveyed pretty quickly and effectively in the sense that while you'll forget almost all of the names, the images linger on.

That's mostly because director Schwartzberg has a great eye for cinematography and background in that field too. Footage of the land and wildlife stands out, and even for most Americans, the majority of the worlds depicted may seem foreign and interesting. The look of the film merits praise, if not much else. In this regard, there is a contrast between aesthetically pleasing images and the mostly disengaging portraits of common people. (And these are common people; the biggest celebrity featured is Ben, of Ben & Jerry fame, who speaks with ice cream in his beard.)

The Steadicam filming of the subjects has me looking for some kind of spontaneity or energy to these people that I just couldn't find. In art (not entirely unlike life), characters need to have layers and depth. Here, many of the subjects either seem superficial or painfully simple. Either one would be acceptable, if not for the fact that their stories are meant to move and compel a wide filmgoing audience. Which they do not when they are offering coffee shop philosophies, trite reflections on life, and generic laments over the plights of the working class. All this, and the obligatory use of Smash Mouth's "All Star."

This smug bike messenger, known as 'Yac', is at work on the streets of Manhattan. Paul Stone and his fellow bored Coloradans engage in explosive art like this.

As a series of commercials or some kind of everyday American vignettes, there is potential for this subject. As a feature length documentary film, there is not enough material to sustain interest. At least not with this kind of treatment of stripping down personalities to one aspect that is supposed to make them special. That this film is intended to inspire just makes it more depressing for me. Celebrating individual triumphs is well and good in life's interactions, but blowing them up for the big screen as some kind of heroic, all-important spectacle that will reaffirm your belief in humanity? That just does not work, especially in this cynical postmodern age in which we live.

While I can appreciate the task that was achieved in journeying across the nation to get snapshots of ordinary Americans, I can't help but think all the time that went into this would be better spent on something else. The director clearly has an eye for nice cinematic images; now he just needs a subject worth making a documentary about.

Buy America's Heart & Soul from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen,
1.33:1 Reformatted Fullscreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English; Closed Captioned
Release Date: November 2, 2004 (Costco)
February 1, 2005 (General Release)
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $ 14.99 (Was $19.99)
Black Keepcase

VIDEO and AUDIO

America's Heart & Soul is presented in its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio picture and has been enhanced for widescreen televisions. The picture looks very clean for the most part. Grain showed up in some shots, but it never really hindered the presentation. Sharpness was excellent, the strong photography was well defined with a nice level of detail. Overall, video quality was rather satisfying, and the colors were extremely rich and vibrant.

Ben Cohen, the co-founder of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, may make a lot of money, but he gets food in his beard just like you and me! Patty Wagstaff, a champion aerobatic flyer, has the sky below and the world above.

Also included is a fullscreen version, presenting the film reformatted for 4 x 3 televisions. This is an open-matte transfer, which compared to the theatrical frame, loses a tiny bit of picture on the sides and adds more at the top and bottom.

The documentary is offered in just one audio track, Dolby Digital 5.1, and the presentation is more than satisfactory. Music is used just about non-stop throughout the film, and it makes good use of the surround soundfield. Volume level was refreshingly consistent, even though there were some instances where I felt it might get too loud (like the Colorado folks who blow things up to pass the time). Sound quality is strong throughout, with dialogue remaining full and natural and the music acting as a constant but never overwhelming presence.

Director/Producer/Cinematographer Louis Schwartzberg, the man behind "America's Heart & Soul." Schwartzberg shows his homemade approach to time-lapse photography in the making-of featurette. The extended salsa dance performance.

BONUS FEATURES

The first of the three bonus features included is "In Search of America's Heart & Soul." This 9-minute making-of featurette provides background for the man behind the film, director/producer/cinematographer Louis Schwartzberg. There is a mixture of interview clips with Schwartzberg,
in which the auteur addresses his goals for the film and its three-act structure, and on-set footage of filming in process. Brief but sufficient, this is a pretty standard featurette, the highlight of which is a little demonstration on how Schwartzberg achieves the time-lapse photography that's used liberally in the film.

Next, four extended performances showcase musically-oriented segments from the film more fully. Salsa Brava's "Abuscadora Calculadora" (2:50) shows off the heat of Latin dance, as scantily-clad women and their male partners go wild with the salsa style. Three-fifths of The Ground Hog Oprey wear flannel shirts as they perform their folksy song "Dreams Come True" (3:04) in this outdoor shoot. Next, David Krakaeur (master of the ever-popular Jewish art of the Klezmer clarinet) performs "Chusen Kale Mazel Tov" (1:48) with "His Madness!" ensemble. Last is the up-and-coming Massachusetts rock band Waltham giving a really enthused audience a dose of "Cheryl" (2:45). These musical sequences, shown in fullscreen (except for Waltham, who are letterboxed) and Dolby 2.0 surround, lack the sharp audio/video quality of the film, but do give a more welcome look at these musical performers.

In this extended musical performance, Vermont dairy farmer George Woodard and the Ground Hog Oprey sing "Dreams Come True." Klezmer clarinet time with David Krakaeur. America's Heart & Soul Main Menu

The last and most substantial bonus feature is a full-length audio commentary from Louis Schwartzberg, which can be heard on either the widescreen or fullscreen modes. If every one of the people profiled in the film has a story, Schwartzberg has a story about filming each of them, which makes for a very enlightening commentary track.

Schwartzberg's screen-specific reflection primarily covers both his intrigue in the various subjects and his techniques for capturing them cinematographically. There aren't many dead spots on the commentary, and when there are, they are filled by the film's audio. I think watching with commentary is actually more entertaining than watching the film with its original audio track. If it's not as easy to follow without seeing the documentary first, Schwartzberg's words do feel like an adequate narration to his impressive images.

The 16 x 9 main menu makes use of the opening/closing original John Mellencamp song ("The World Don't Bother Me None"), as scattered tiles shuffle through a collection of scenes against a setting sun. Outside of a couple of transitions, the other menu screens offer no animation, but they do play selections from the bluegrassy rock score. Before the menu loads, there are skippable previews for National Treasure, The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagment, The Young Black Stallion and Sacred Planet. These four trailers are individually and collectively accessible from the Sneak Peeks menu.

Rick and Dick Hoyt are Boston's father/son team of marathon racers. The world's most successful blind mountain climber.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Nicely-photographed but emotionally lacking, America's Heart & Soul is an ambitious documentary that mostly falls flat in trying to interest viewers with quick stories of ordinary individuals throughout the nation. Disney's DVD shows satisfying technical quality, but those intrigued by the subject matter are encouraged to rent first.

More on the DVD / Buy from Amazon.com

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Reviewed October 24, 2004.