An infomercial is, by definition, a slightly creepy Orwellian thing. It’s a commercial that plays a bait-and-switch game with you, pretending to offer “information” when it’s really skewing information to sell you something. So what do you call an infomercial that pretends not to be an infomercial?
In the case of “America’s Musical Journey,” you could call it a distinctly inferior 3D IMAX film, an oversize tease of a sonic-adventure documentary that leaves you hollow rather than bedazzled. Narrated by Morgan Freeman, who comes off here less as The Voice of God than as The Voice of He Who Will Read Whatever Is Put in Front of Him, the movie presents itself as an enraptured tale of American musical roots — which, admittedly, is quite a thing to try to squeeze into 40 minutes of gargantuan-screen time.
Over the years, though, there have been 45-minute IMAX films about a variety of subjects (dinosaurs, tornadoes, the ruins of the Titanic, the relics of Egypt, Michael Jordan, Mark Twain, Siegfried & Roy) that have left a marvelous impression. “America’s Musical Journey,” by contrast, has been conceived as a kind of free-floating cinematic tourist trap. It’s not exploring music — it’s selling U.S. cities as destinations, complete with soaring aerial skyscraper vistas that the director, Greg MacGillivray, seems a lot more invested in than he is in the transformative topics of jazz and rock ‘n’ roll.
“America’s Musical Journey” is the kind of movie that features two or three very short, let’s-get-this-over-with clips of Louis Armstrong but lingers on a sequence in which the film’s host, Aloe Blacc, sits on the steps of Armstrong’s home serenading children with a chorus of “What a Wonderful World.” (“Without trailblazers like Louis,” says Aloe, “who knows where I’d be today?”) It’s the sort of movie that serves up a handful of rapid-fire Elvis clips, none of which is even sound-synched, but devotes an entire sequence to dancing waiters and waitresses looking like extras out of “Grease 3,” doing a production number in the Arcade Restaurant where Elvis used to go to order a milkshake once he’d finished cutting a record.
There’s one shot — literally, it’s 10 seconds long — of the exterior of the Motown Studios, plus a single black-and-white image of an old family sitting around a radio (“The Internet of its day,” explains Freeman) accompanied by a snippet of a Jimmie Rodgers song that stands in for country music, as well as a generic shot of Seattle’s Pike Place Market that’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nod to grunge. But the ADHD approach to history calms down the moment we arrive at a sequence of a flash mob in Chicago, gyrating to the sounds of Aloe Blacc singing “Wake Me Up.” The point is for that Dr. Pepper–commercial flash mob to make us want to revel in the spangly grit of downtown Chicago.
Even at 40 minutes, “America’s Musical Journey” could have taken us on an organic and inspiring musical adventure. But what’s odd about the movie is that instead of reveling in the jewels of our cultural past, it seems to be twisting itself in knots to avoid the past. The film’s one other token celebrity is Gloria Estefan, who is seen chatting briefly in a recording studio, though that’s just the preamble to a downtown Miami montage (with more dancing waiters!) set, of course, to the sounds of “Conga.” This is a journey? The film was produced by a company called Brand America, and that, rather than music, is what “America’s Musical Journey” is selling: whatever’s left of the American brand. Our musical heritage is timeless, but if it ever does begin to fade in the 21st century, it will be in part because of fake museum-piece concoctions like this one.