Given that it's a tribute to artists, the artlessness of "Extraordinary Ordinary People" is at first jarring. But as this survey of creativity outside the mainstream jumps from subject to subject — from bluegrass to Tejano to gospel, from quilter to woodcarver to circus aerialist — the clunky organization and very basic production values give way to something inspiring.
The latest film by documentarian Alan Govenar ("The Beat Hotel") centers on the National Heritage Fellowship, awarded annually by the National Endowment for the Arts since 1982. Keeping folk traditions alive, the American citizens and permanent residents who have been selected for the honor (10 to 15 each year) collectively present a vision of sweeping cultural breadth — one that restores the luster to such overused words as "diversity."
The roll call of recipients contains such familiar names as Earl Scruggs and Mavis Staples. But by and large the designated fellows work in relative obscurity, among them janitor-by-day Jeronimo Lozano, a carver of figurines and retablos. For a number of honorees who escaped oppressive regimes, their art is an act of defiance as much as one of celebration.
Narration delivered by Sheila Kay Adams, a singer of Appalachian ballads, lends some flow to the uneven collection of profiles. Govenar's craftsmanship may not approach that of his subjects, yet the film is sure to spark further exploration: Many viewers will be more than eager to follow these folk heroes off the beaten path.
‘Extraordinary Ordinary People’
Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Music Hall, Beverly Hills