America's Heart & Soul
This warm, patriotic documentary celebrates the rich tapestry of modern-day Americana. Brief segments introduce us to Roudy Roudebush, horse wrangler; George Woodard, dairy farmer; Rick and Dick Hoyt, marathoners; Michael Bennett, Olympic boxer; Mosie Burks, gospel singer; Patty Wagstaff, aerobatic flyer; Cecil Williams, inner-city pastor; Erik Weihenmayer, blind mountain climber; Charles Jimmie, Tlinget Indian elder; Ace Barnes, oil well fire fighter; Minny Yancy, rural Kentucky rug weaver; Frank and Dave Pino, rock musicians; John Yacobellis, New York City bike messenger; The Vasques Brothers, salsa dancers; David Krakauer, Klezmer clarinetist; Mark and Ann Savoy, Cajun musicians; Ben Cohen, founder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream; Amelia Rudolph, cliff dancer; Paul Stone, explosion artist; Ed Holt, wine grower; Dan Klennert, “junk art” sculptor; James Andrews and Trombone Shorty, jazz musicians. Dynamic, snapshot bios and beautiful photography show how real Americans from coast to coast work, play, worship and overcome handicaps to fulfill their dreams.
Throughout the movie there are gorgeous shots of nature, breathtaking cityscapes and heartwarming symbols of freedom, including fireworks at the Statue of Liberty. It’s implied that Americans are at their best when building character, being creative, working hard, expressing faith, serving others and overcoming obstacles. Inspirational moments find blind ice climber Erik Weihenmayer achieving a personal goal (not at all bitter, he focuses on the positive), and an incapacitated man with cerebral palsy making his annual appearance in the Boston Marathon—pushed the distance by his father.
Minny Yancy points to her husband as a model of self-discipline. She also puts wealth in perspective by saying, “Poverty is not a word to a true Appalachian. ... I’ve been broke many times, but I’ve never been poor.” Entrepreneur Ben Cohen notes that building a successful business has to start with meeting the customer’s needs, not simply trying to make money. It’s said that doing something you believe in is more important than the pay. Steel mill workers, plagued by the country’s increased reliance on overseas labor, refuse to admit defeat (“I don’t know what the answer is, but the answer ain’t quitting”). A 70-year-old man is shown fighting oil rig fires, and offering insight into how dangerous and unglamorous it can be.
Hardworking, fun-loving dairyman George Woodard has a solid relationship with his pre-teen son, in part because he was committed to raising him himself, without day care (“[On a farm] you get to see your child grow up”). Ed Holt alludes to the tough, yet satisfying task of growing grapes. An ex-con confesses to his criminal past and talks of using incarceration to turn his life around.
Dan Klennert, a sculptor living in the shadow of Washington’s Mt. Ranier, gathers old machine parts and other discarded steel, choosing to see the potential in them. He says, “To me it isn’t junk, it’s rusty gold.” He claims to be a former special-ed kid who was saved by art. Klennert believes that someone who works with his hands is a laborer. If he uses his hands and mind, he’s a craftsman. If he uses his hands, mind, heart and soul, that makes him an artist.
Telluride cowboy Roudy Roudebush makes a strong case against alcohol, admitting that it had a hold on him before he realized it was robbing him of his freedom (“I certainly gave alcohol every chance to prove it’s the right way to go”). He’s an earthy, rugged man who now embraces sobriety. Alaskan Indian elder Charles Jimmie dedicates his time to rescuing injured eagles, nursing them back to health and releasing them into the wild. A San Francisco church is esteemed for resisting piety, helping the poor, feeding the homeless and trying to be inclusive (see below for caution).
Most of the diverse spirituality represented onscreen is fairly orthodox. Devout Jew David Krakauer is shown in his synagogue, and receives great joy from playing traditional Klezmer music on his clarinet. Elderly Mosie Burks, a featured member of the Mississippi Mass Choir, is a Christian of giddy faith who introduces herself by saying, “My name is Mosie Burks and I am a child of the King!” She talks of praising the Lord and loving her family. Mosie sings with her choir and even breaks into an acappella version of “Swing Low” during the interview. Olympian Michael Bennett talks of God’s blessings. Minny Yancy embodies the pioneer spirit, which includes religious faith. She extols the virtues of listening to God, and suggests that most people do too much talking when they pray. Ed Holt says operating a vineyard “puts you in the middle of God’s glory” and references Jesus turning water into wine (John 2:1-11).
Reverend Cecil Williams of San Francisco’s Glide Memorial United Methodist Church is upheld as an esteemed humanitarian and compassionate clergyman. He emphasizes the need to accept all comers and take care of their earthly needs. However, he downplays the importance of espousing distinct ideologies and getting people to heaven. That will raise red flags with some viewers. And it should. Although the film doesn’t get into it, Williams has spent the past 40 years as a leading advocate for the lesbian and gay movement within the Church. He has created activist groups and has been referred to as “the first minister in a major denomination to perform same-sex commitment ceremonies” in 1965. Rev. Cecil Williams isn’t merely sympathetic to people trapped in sexual sin; he has been their longtime champion. This movie might not address that, but his zealous activism is a matter of public record, and it’s disappointing that director Louis Schwartzberg chose to showcase someone whose ministry actually undermines the biblical model for Christianity and marriage.
Elsewhere, Mark Savoy refers to himself as a “reincarnated Neanderthal sent back to play Cajun music.” When it comes to transcendent matters, Roudy claims to like questions more than answers (“It’s the pondering I enjoy”). An Indian in Alaska speaks of his kinship with rehabilitated eagles (“When they leave us, they go with our spirit and hopefully take it to our ancestors above”).
Steamy salsa dancing finds women in skimpy outfits wiggling their backsides. One young man even describes his interest in the subculture as follows: “For me it’s like love, passion, sexual.”
Parents will want to discourage bored adolescents from playing with explosives and firing cannons at cars, appliances, etc. like Paul Stone does here. Targets are blown apart or set on fire. While his eccentric self-expression is amusing, it could easily inspire tragic copycats much the way MTV’s volatile Jacka-- has. A New Orleans jazz musician tells of his brother being murdered as we watch an old-fashioned hearse pulling away. An older man—assisted by Olympian Michael Bennett—teaches inner-city kids boxing to keep them off of the streets. He explains that nine of his boys were killed by urban violence.
Crude or Profane Language
Two exclamations of “god” or “my god.” A couple of mild profanities.
Drug and Alcohol Content
A recovering alcoholic, Roudy drinks water at a bar, making it clear that he considers booze an impediment to happiness. Vineyard owner Ed Holt claims Jesus turned water into wine “because he liked to drink, just like me.” Holt also says he likes “drinking beer and chasing women.”
Other Negative Elements
A young rock musician boasts of watching the raunchy teen comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High daily. Parents may not want their children imitating the reckless cycling of big-city bike messenger John Yacobellis (weaving in and out of traffic at high speed, grabbing a car’s door handle to hitch a ride, etc.). Also, John’s competitive spirit is praiseworthy ... to a point. It’s great to want to be the best, but he considers anything less abject failure (“I don’t race to come in second place. Second place is the first loser”).
Except for its decision to showcase Cecil Williams’ ultraliberal Glide Memorial United Methodist Church as the poster child for compassionate Christianity in America, this film has a lot of good things to say. Great people. Solid work ethic. Inspirational stories. But there’s no getting past that one subtle, yet agonizingly disappointing inclusion. Inevitably, some hurting viewers will seek out Williams’ misguided church or others like it for answers to life’s most important questions. I can’t recommend a documentary that could steer people in that direction, no matter how solid the rest of the movie may be. I’m all for patriotism, rugged idealism, blue-collar nobility and a religious faith that preaches getting our hands dirty. But Disney’s upbeat and generally positive travelogue arrives just as our nation is embroiled in a winner-take-all battle to redefine marriage and family. The spoils is more than bragging rights. It’s America’s heart and soul.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Roudy Roudebush, George Woodard, Marc & Ann Savoy, Erik Weihenmayer, Ben Cohen, Michael Bennett and dozens of other ordinary folks from all walks of life
Louis Schwartzberg ( )