It takes a lot of chutzpah for a documentary filmmaker to title his film with a moniker as grand as America's Heart and Soul, but first-time director Louis Schwartzberg may have actually pulled it off. There is a wonderful variety to his cinematic sketches of rugged individualists, He found them over the years by keeping a file on characters who amused him while roaming the country, a la John Steinbeck, from Florida to Alaska. While his cinematography reflects the director's sunny disposition, his subjects for the most part have fascinating tales to tell, and Schwartzberg has a knack for getting to the essence quickly and then moving on. For an episodic film, America's Heart and Soul is fast-paced and often downright exciting.

Each of his subjects has a unique story to tell--a tale of life meaningfully lived. They speak with a kind of happy urgency of matters they are eager to share. Beginning with Roudy Douderbush, a cowboy's cowboy from Telluride, Colorado, America's Heart and Soul shows a laid-back, respectful wonder at the energy and inventiveness of its subjects, while often permitting them to demonstrate a self-denigrating wit that makes the viewer feel as if they've been invited to a family gathering.

Although Schwartzberg has obvious gifts as a cinematographer, what makes his film so remarkable are his choices to represent the American spirit. Although the people come from diverse backgrounds, most shine, as the title promises, with considerable heart as well as depth of soul. Without much coaxing from Schwartzberg, they sing or play instruments or--in the case of the Vazquez Brothers and Amelia Rudolph--dance with considerable flair.

Character, however, is Schwartzberg's primary concern, although some, like aerobatic flyer Patty Wagstaff and Olympic boxer Michael Bennett, are movie-star handsome. Perhaps the best-known of the participants is the Reverend Cecil Williams of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, but his fame is largely a consequence of what he has given the homeless for the past 40 years, not what he has amassed.

These Americans, as a group quite likeable, deliberately encompass ordinary people, people who could be our neighbors, making their extraordinary gifts a continual surprise. What they have in common is an enormous zest for life, and it is a refreshing treat to meet them.

-Bruce Feld