If your left-wing sister-in-law in West Hollywood with the “Visualize World Peace” bumper sticker on her 1982 Volvo station wagon has been hounding you to go see Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, you might want to encourage her to take a chill pill and check out America’s Heart and Soul.
Veteran filmmaker Louis Schwartzberg
has elegantly turned his eye on two dozen non-celebrity Americans with intriguing stories to tell for a gorgeous 90-minute cross-country tour of the United States. Among those profiled are a banjo-playing dairy farmer in Vermont, a tough-as-nails cowboy in Colorado, a flamboyant minister who feeds the poor in San Francisco, a gospel singer in the Mississippi delta, tango-dancing brothers in Los Angeles, a blind mountain climber, a bike messenger in New York City, and a rug weaver from Kentucky.
The movie has been Schwartzberg’s passion project for the last 15 years as he collected stories about ordinary people with remarkable stories. The film “strings together these stories into a tapestry of a beautiful portrait of America,” he told me in a recent interview. “It is a film that celebrates the values and ideals that America stands for.”
While it was never intended to be a response to Moore’s snarly conspiratorial docudrama, America’s Heart and Soul may prove to be the anti-Fahrenheit 9/11. Tongues are wagging because the two movies are coming out at the same time with such different values and sensibilities–cynicism vs. celebration, pessimism vs. optimism, grotesqueness vs. beauty. While one film motivated by a hyperactive case of partisan anger, the other has no discernable political agenda other than highlighting the passion of average Americans. Of course, it is also hard to ignore the irony that America’s Heart and Soul is a product of Disney, the company that refused to release Moore’s film.
With a touch of the Americana images that would make Norman Rockwell dance a jig, Heart and Soul is a pageantry of gutsy and creative men and women who make this country such a unique place. Where else can you see cliff dancing celebrated? Where else can you decorate your jalopy and display it at an art festival for cars? Where else can a performance artist blow up television sets by stacking them up and then launching a bowling ball full of explosives at them? Kaboom!
Is this is a great country or what?
Schwartzberg says that passion is the common denominator in his profiles. “Because of their passion, they are not doing it for the money–and that is true of all the stories in this movie. It is also about freedom,” he says. “Freedom to work out life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness on their own terms.”
For a filmmaker, America’s vastness and diversity make it such a rich source to work from. “The melting pot idea of this country is really what makes this country great. It gives it its vitality,” Schwartzberg says. “Diversity should not just be a politically correct term to use.” Instead, he believes that it is the friction created within a diverse society that produces such a colorful and imaginative culture.
“We have jazz, gospel, blues, salsa, Cajun, klezmer, rock’n'roll. Where does all that music come from?” he asks. “If you have a homogeneous society, I suspect it is only one kind of music.”
To Schwartzberg, a region’s musical flare is much like its accent. “I love everyone’s accent being a little different. It has got such a rich flavor,” he reports. “And the music brings you the flavor of the regions.”
You get that feeling when you hear Mosie Burks sing gospel music. As the lead singer with the Mississippi Mass Choir, her voice can bring light to the darkest of souls. “Gospel came from slaves pulling their cotton sacks,” she says on screen. “They chanted, they moaned. Nobody could stop them.”
“Without having to spend a whole lot of time doing a boring exposé about where that all came from,” says Schwartzberg, “you’ve got a history lesson that is deeper and has more impact than maybe anything you could learn in a longer exposé.”
While he is well aware that his film is going to be compared to Fahrenheit 9/11–Schwartzberg doesn’t seem to mind. America’s Heart and Soul has been in the works for so many years (long before September 11), that one senses that the timing of the release is really quite a sense of relief to Schwartzberg–especially the Independence Day weekend debut.
“Part of it I guess is a belief and a faith in that somebody was kind of driving me in this whole journey,” he says. “You know how when you bump into people in unexpected places? It is not a religious thing as much as it seems to be some kind of order in the universe where you bump into people and try to figure out the mathematical odds of that happening.”
While the rest of us call the apparent aptitude for making fortunate discoveries accidentally serendipity, Schwartzberg calls it filmmaking. “These connections all came together and I was just trying to get these iconic moments with remarkable but ordinary people that are basically symbolic of the unsung heroes, the tens of thousands of unsung heroes, that exist in our country.”
–Steve Beard is the editor of Good News and the creator of Thunderstruck.org.