IN CASE ANYONE was wondering why Walt Disney balked at releasing Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," they should watch "America's Heart & Soul," which showcases the kind of spirited feel-goodism the mouse house is more comfortable with. This is Disney at its live-action best and brightest.
For this debut documentary, director Louis Schwartzberg took a 35mm camera on his shoulder and traversed this wide and varied country, making short films about people from all corners. What's powerful about this movie is what's powerful about America. People are free to live their lives, according to their own rules, whims and dreams. And guess what: They do.
We meet horse wrangler Roudy Roudebush, who has the run of Colorado's natural beauty when he's out there on his horse and who even rides himself directly into the local saloon. We see Michael Bennett of Chicago, an African American boxer who served six years for armed robbery, then became captain of the U.S. Olympics boxing team. We watch Minnie Yancey, a rug weaver in Appalachia, who works her furrows while her husband works his on a tractor outside. There is an achy love and respect in her voice as she talks about him and the life they lead.
Then there is Amelia Rudolph, who formed the Bandaloop Cliff Dancers, a group of nimble, graceful people who lash themselves to the sides of cliffs and perform beautiful routines in a sort of horizontal heaven. They are clearly in ecstasy, and the camera captures that feeling perfectly.
On and on, they show us the idiosyncratic magnificence of their personal journeys. They are a heavy-metal musician who works in a carwash, a cattle farmer who makes his own movies and writes his own country music, and aerobatic flier Patty Wagstaff, who climbs to the heavens; they have taken what they have and turned it into something inspiring. And they have such wonderful things to say about the process.
"The thing about working seven days a week: You don't have to go back to work on Monday," says Roudebush, who loves what he does and talks frankly about his life of sobriety.
"My children don't follow in my footsteps," says Ace Barnes, an oil-well firefighter in Livingston, Tex. "First of all, they couldn't keep up. Second, there's a better way of making a living."
Without thinking about it, he's talking about the American dream. He's also talking about the thing he's free to do in America: live his own darn life.
These participants aren't actors. They're real. They're living creative existences, which is to say, they are living at their fullest. Each one of them is bigger than the movie, but the movie is big enough to know and show it. Even though, at times, Schwartzberg's documentary exalts the American way of life with the mythical reverence of a Leni Riefenstahl, the experience is undeniably stirring. You could do worse than watch this movie and walk away with an ebullient spirit about being alive.
AMERICA'S HEART & SOUL (PG, 86 minutes) -- Contains nothing objectionable. Area theaters.