American Anthem begins with helicopter shots of the Statue of Liberty and some Southwestern mesas, and right away you know this film is going to grab for your patriotic jugular vein and never let go. The fact that this display has been timed to coincide with the major-league hootenanny surrounding the Statue of Liberty refurbishing is, of course, no coincidence at all.
As a matter of fact, despite its broad title, American Anthem turns to some pretty small-scale matters very soon. It’s all about a bunch of gymnasts, see, trying out for a big meet coming up. It won’t be easy; both protagonists have attitude problems.
Janet Jones (The Flamingo Kid) plays a new member of the TOPS gymnastic team. She’s got her nose just a tad high in the air, and gets so darned mad when the gruff-but-lovable (how could he be anything but?) coach forces her to conduct her floor routine to some creepy classical music instead of the neato disco tune composed by her friend, a non-threatening type who doesn’t like to leave his room.
Mitch Gaylord (gold medal gymnast in the 1984 Olympic Games) is a troubled youth. He used to be a big sports star, but something went wrong. Now he hangs around wearing a leather jacket and working at the garage as a welder—since Flashdance, the occupation of choice.
One look at Jones and he’s interested in gymnastics again. But hey, it’s more than that—it’s about proving something to yourself, to your parents, to your coach.
So Gaylord goes to the woods, sticks a metal pole between a couple of birch trees, and starts to swing, to the tune of some Gregorian-style chants that were left over from the Omen soundtrack.
He’s trying to perfect the triple-super-kahuna (or something along those lines), which he may or may not uncork in the final attempt of the big meet in the last minute of the film. Your guess.
The source of Gaylord’s problems is supposed to be his strained relationship with his father, an amazingly clichéd contrivance that drags the movie down. Providing understanding is his mother, played by Michelle Phillips, who used to be with the Mamas and the Papas.
That’s another musical connection, all part of the American anthem. There’s music throughout, and whole sequences are available for lifting as music videos if needed. Not surprising that this is the work of Albert Magnoli, the director of Purple Rain; it’s probably safe to conclude that whatever harmonizing moments that film had—and it did have a few—were created by Prince and his entourage, not Magnoli, whose newest anthem is decidedly off-key.
First published in the Herald, June 28, 1986
The movie opened just a week before that Lady Liberty bicentennial, a real orgy of nationalism (though the statue itself is extremely right-on) presided over by Ronald Reagan, who didn’t seem like much at the time but who we now know was so awesome he makes George Washington and Abraham Lincoln look like, well, Mitch Gaylord, if you know what I mean. Janet Jones, who always seemed slightly bionic, would soon marry Wayne Gretzky, who was not even American. Footnote to nothing: this movie is one of the few film credits for Patrice Donnelly, the real-life athlete who very memorably starred in Personal Best. Plus, really terrible soundtrack.