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America’s Heart and Soul

Collection of vignettes commemorating the diversity and indomitable spirit of the country, "America's Heart and Soul" features 20-odd valiant souls treasuring their freedom and overcoming obstacles while skycams soar over purple mountains' majesty and an acrobatic pilot does loop-de-loops over fruited plains. Director Louis Schwartzberg traveled all over the country collecting pretty images and quirky individualists, then strung them together in a patriotic daisy chain.

Collection of vignettes commemorating the diversity and indomitable spirit of the country, “America’s Heart and Soul” features 20-odd valiant souls treasuring their freedom and overcoming obstacles while skycams soar over purple mountains’ majesty and an acrobatic pilot does loop-de-loops over fruited plains. Director Louis Schwartzberg traveled all over the country collecting pretty images and quirky individualists, then strung them together in a patriotic daisy chain. Docu, which Buena Vista releases in 100 theaters July 4 weekend (opposite Michael Moore’s fiery Disney reject), will appeal primarily to those who like their armchair adventures picture-postcard pristine and sprinkled with touches of proud self-sufficiency.

Helmer Schwartzberg, who has spent most of his life shooting high-end commercials and building a sizeable stock footage company he eventually sold to Getty, here reclaims his imagery for a higher cause. The high gloss of promotional packaging, however, informs every frame.

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Schwartzberg has an eye for colorful variations on the familiar, even hokey templates. His gallery of diversified Americana includes some rare finds, like Roudy Roudebush, an old cowboy from Telluride, Colo., who looks like Slim Pickens and gallops over the Continental Divide, relishing his government-free independence as he shows a young cowgirl the ropes.

Segments last an average of three or four minutes each, typically isolating the passion of Schwartzberg’s subjects, demonstrating how they embody the region in which they live, and highlighting the characteristics that make them special. Certain heartfelt “heartland” themes — dedication to a calling, love of the land and economic autonomy — reoccur throughout the mini-narratives.

A white-haired weaver in Kentucky waxes poetical on her fierce love for Appalachia, stating that if one were to cut her open “what you’ll see is a mountain range, mist hanging in the hills, that’s my heart.” Distinguishing between being broke and being poor, she claims that in Appalachia they know how to live off the land and have all they really need.

Schwartzberg tosses in some oddball curves for comic relief, like the “explosive artist” who wiles away the long Colorado winters by blowing up various combinations of objects (though his shrapnel sandwich made by projecting a large ham through an assembly-line of bread, knives and mustard looks less than appetizing). A visit to a nose-ringed Tlingit elder in Klukwar, Alaska, who liberates a wounded eagle into the wild, makes a tentative stab at ecological anthropology, while a Klezmer clarinetist in America’s oldest synagogue and a missionary in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district cover religious bases. Some add danger and daring to the mix, like a female champion acrobatics pilot and an imaginative Gotham bike messenger.

Several subjects burst into music, adding welcome respite from Joel McNeely’s relentlessly upbeat score. Seventh generational Cajuns fiddle while gumbo burns; a choir leader in Mississippi positively vibrates with the joy of singing; a Vermont dairy farmer makes movies and strums bluegrass music on the side.

Then there are those paragons of exemplary courage who triumph over adversity: the spastic, cerebral-palsied, non-speaking Boston marathoner; the black teen who went to jail for seven years only to emerge a proficient boxer and become captain of the U.S. Olympics team, and the fearless blind mountain climber who scaled Mt. Everest.

Tech credits are highly polished; indeed, one wonders why the film wasn’t conceived for IMAX screens, since its structure and scope seem ideally suited to larger-than-life venues.

America's Heart and Soul

Production: A Buena Vista release of a Walt Disney Pictures presentation of a Blacklight Films production. Produced by Louis Schwartzberg. Executive producer, Jake Eberts. Directed by Louis Schwartzberg.

Crew: Camera (color), Schwartzberg; editors, Brian Funck, Tom McGahm, Jeff Werner; music, Joel McNeely, with original song by John Mellencamp; associate producers, Jan Ross, Vincent Ueber. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (Showcase), May 1, 2004. Running time: 88 MIN.

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