Years from now (in a galaxy far away), some weary film historian will look back at teen movies of the ‘80s and wonder--what was with those kids anyway? So young, so gifted, so muscular and beautiful--and yet so messed up. So in need of inspiration, of goals, of parents that understand them. So in need of . . . a good script.
If you’ve seen “Flashdance” and “Purple Rain,” if you’ve seen ravishing, loose-limbed bodies pulsing to a thunderous rock beat, then you’ve got a pretty good idea of the main ingredients in “American Anthem” (citywide), a dim-witted film that attempts feebly to breathe some life into the story of a young gymnast’s bumpy quest for success. Directed by Albert Magnoli (“Purple Rain”), this film reminds us only how much these rock-drenched teen dreams need the presence of an incandescent performer like Prince to add a shower of sparks to an otherwise dreary, predictable celebration of teen Angst .
The film stars Olympic gold medalist Mitch Gaylord as Steve Tevere, a brooding, ex-football hero who’s given up his first love--gymnastics--for a dull job as a motorcycle mechanic. Estranged from his bitter, out-of-work father, Steve sulks, smokes cigarettes, zooms around in his Jeep and stares at his trophies, which even though they couldn’t be more than a couple of years old, are already laced with cobwebs.
The only person who can bring him back to life is Julie (Janet Jones), a young lovely trying to make the U.S. gymnastic team, despite an unsympathetic coach who forces her to perform accompanied by a dippy musical score that sounds as though it were written for the 1934 Ice Capades. Can Steve ever redeem himself (and stop smoking)? Will Pop ever get another job? And will Julie ever get rid of that awful theme music?
Do we care? It’s a pretty ridiculous story, and screenwriters Evan Archerd and Jeff Benjamin never figure out a way to generate any real suspense, drama or inspiration. The dialogue has been pared down to an absolute minimum, but what’s left is still awful--everyone speaks as if he’s reciting haikus left over from 11th-grade English class. The skirmishes between Steve and his dad are equally embarrassing, especially since the slugfests are so clearly lifted from a similar subplot in “Purple Rain.” Watching them bellow at each other, outfitted in matching undershirts, you get the feeling that you’re eavesdropping on a bad “Saturday Night Live” parody of “Death of a Salesman.”
Either because he didn’t trust his material or he found himself working with such unskilled actors, Magnoli pours on the visual pyrotechnics. He gets so jacked up that he can’t even let the gymnastics scenes play out, opting for annoying reaction shots that telegraph every emotion we’re supposed to feel and disrupt the solitary beauty of each routine. He even throws in a ridiculous motorcycle chase, repeatedly cutting to shots of the back wheel of the cycle kicking up dirt--a trick he ran into the ground in “Purple Rain.”
There’s nothing remotely real about “American Anthem” (MPAA-rated: PG-13). Even when we see Gaylord in repose, skulking in the back of the gym or asleep in his bed, he’s shot with all the dolled-up glamour of a Bruce Weber photo from a Ralph Lauren men’s ad. The whole idea behind a fable of athletic glory is to capture the guts and the tears. But everyone is so perfectly coiffed and scented with sweat here that you never feel the slightest hint of passion. These kids aren’t sports heroes, they’re just performing poodles.
A Lorimar Motion Pictures presentation. Producers Robert Schaffel and Doug Chapin. Director Albert Magnoli. Writers Evan Archerd and Jeff Benjamin. Camera Donald E. Thorin. Editor James Oliver. Music Alan Silvestri. Production design Ward Preston. With Mitch Gaylord, Janet Jones, Michelle Phillips, John Aprea, R.J. Williams, Patrice Donnelly, Michael Pataki, Andrew White and Maria Anz.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (Parents are strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.)