An uplifting ode to all that’s still great, or at least moderately salvageable, about the USA, this talking-head road trip — taken by two neophyte pic-makers with a really solid Rolodex — is a handy antidote to prevailing Generation Why cynicism. Blowup to 35mm from 16 and Hi-8 isn’t particularly swell-looking, but unabashed celeb sincerity and timely content could make “Anthem” click with select theatrical audiences, beginning with L.A. today and N.Y. next month. (Zeitgeist is releasing, and never has a distrib’s name been more appropriate to a film.) After that, much tube play is assured, along with a prolonged life on the college circuit.
Pic docus car trip taken by then-26-year-old Hollywooders Kristin Hahn and Shainee Gabel over eight months in 1995. Pair headed east in a borrowed Saab with two Hi-8 cameras (and an unseen cameraman in another car), with just a few contacts to guide their journey. Fortunately, one was a friendly Louisiana historian, who gave them scads more (“You’re not going to show this?” he asks hopefully), including the number of White House honcho George Stephanopoulos. They catch up with him in his office, but their interview is quickly interrupted by a hail from the chief, whose arm is plainly visible behind a partially open door.
After this sort-of-defeat (later, they found out that cameras are supposed to be verboten in the West Wing), the pair get some inspiring words from U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove. Surprisingly, her view of the American Dream isn’t entirely different from that of tastemaker John Waters, talking in his Maryland back yard; the “Pink Flamingos” director admits he is genuinely happy, having long since attained his fantasy of owning “a Xerox machine and a black Buick.”
On the road, they also hang out with Studs Terkel in Chicago (he seems to need the company, and bums a ride downtown); a flirty Willie Nelson on his tour bus in Texas; deep-voiced, guarded rapper Chuck D. in New York; and, back in D.C., frustrated politicians Geraldine Ferraro and George McGovern (the latter tells them — and a tagalong mom — that he really should have won in ’72).
In Colorado, they spend some serious downtime with Hunter S. Thompson, who takes them driving and drinking, but just when he’s about to open up for an actual interview, he gets the news that Jerry Garcia has died, and clams up again.
Next door in Utah, Gabel and Hahn (plus an added film crew) corner Robert Redford at his Sundance Institute. Their cameras are intent on examining him without makeup, but the old pro dominates the proceedings with his disarmingly candid comments about working within the limitations of the U.S. system. Another high point comes when the trip essentially wraps, with a long-awaited meeting with mercurial R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe, chilling in his undershirt in a New York hotel room. With his shaven head and mascara-ringed eyes. he seems impossibly remote, but once they open him up, he gets genuinely personal, even lauding the filmmakers for their efforts.
Along the way, they also talk to ordinary folk, including a dreamy, older waitress in Iowa and a young gas-pumper in Pennsylvania. (Named Micah Wagner, the angelic-looking kid could be the next Matthew McConaughey, especially if this one doesn’t work out.) And they also get some reality checks from people working against government censorship and fighting to redress old wrongs, as represented by Winona Laduke, a prominent Native-American spokeswoman.
The accumulated effect of all this irony-free chatter is to paint an almost shockingly optimistic view of the seemingly tired and divided old republic. Some things don’t change, however: The interviewees are mostly men, by a margin of more than 5-to-1.
The helmers, when they appear onscreen (it’s mostly Gabel seen in the shaky-cam antics) come across as genial goofballs — squabbling a bit, missing their boyfriends and wondering if they’re on the right track — but they aren’t as dim as they look. Both have studio-production, film-fest and social-activist experience.
They were savvy enough to get alternabands including Wilco, Throwing Muses and (of course) REM to cheaply license plenty of rockin’ tunes for their Saab sojourn, in lieu of an original soundtrack. The women also inked a tie-in book deal with Avon, whose advance paid for the pic’s post-production.
Finished work, a tad long at two-plus hours, won’t win any prizes for visual appeal or formal grace, but hope-starved auds will find it essential viewing.