It’s a strange thing to be a person of a country. You can’t just identify as yourself in the singular as too many things require you to announce in the binary if you’re in support of or against where you live. To denounce implies a lack of patriotism, wherein an argument can and has been made that a patriot stands by its country even when it’s doing something wrong. Rather, it’s a nationalist mentality that should be avoided as it’s the thing that creates strife that persists for generations. For the United States, consider that in 1951 President Truman held “I am an American Day” as a means of healing post-World War II. One view sees that as patriotic, asking the country to come together, setting aside differences, whether native or naturalized, and coming together as one. However, if someone had experienced the harshness of an internment camp, would they feel nationalistic and patriotic and take part? Would it be right to ask for participation from a member of an Indigenous or Black community or, perhaps worse, look down on them if they don’t? To be American is incredibly complex and is growing more difficult to discuss by the day, the belief that either one is for or against and nothing else in between. Through the lens of music, director Peter Nicks (Stephen Curry: Underrated), composer Kris Bowers (Chevalier), and producer DJ Dahi (SZA “Used;” Q, “They Hide”) explore the varying voices of a nation, identifying the commonalities and differences that bind us all together.
First, a quick history lesson:
During the War of 1812, there are many things which are attributed to Francis Scott Key — quartermaster in the Georgetown Artillery, volunteer aide to General Walter Smith at the Battle of Bladensburg, etc. — but it’s the crafting of the song “The Defense of Fort M’Henry” that would be the item which would lock in his legacy. This song, known widely as “The Star-Spangled Banner,” would first become integrated into military use (and even named by President Wilson in 1916 as the national anthem), but it wasn’t until 1931 when President Hoover signed a law designating it as the national anthem that it became official. Since then, the song is elevated above all others. With its direct ties to the military, the song often evokes more than pride in country, but for the military itself and any perceived disrespect toward the anthem is viewed as disrespect equally directed at current and past armed services members. In truth, the song was written by an individual who owned slaves, yet also defended freed slaves in the court of law, and was given prominence as a military tool to promote nationalism rather than patriotism.
Through the film Anthem, Nicks appears to investigate what a new national anthem would sound like if created today. This is an important distinction between seeing the doc as actively trying to replace it because the latter implies that Nicks *wants* to replace it versus the former which interrogates the history of the United States through music in order to understand what a potential future could look like. Perhaps at knowledgeable proxies, Nicks places at the forefront of this exploration Kris Bowers and DJ Dahi, two people whose specific experiences within the music industry make them prime individuals to ask the right questions about music history to the musicians the duo travel around the country to talk with. These two are a well-spring of knowledge, providing a much-needed anchor so that the audience understands that the questions these two ask are coming from positions of authority (which we can trust), but also that they can understand and synthesize the answers they receive.
Before they begin their journey, however, Nicks takes the audience (and to a degree Bowers and Dahi) through the history of the anthem, as well as the different ways in which the anthem has been performed and the general public’s reaction to it. While Whitney Houston’s 1991 Super Bowl XXV performance is often cited as absolutely remarkable, there are others from renowned performers that haven’t always been immediate hits. For instance, whereas I grew up listening to Jimi Hendrix’s rendition thinking it beautiful, it was not seen so immediately. In a snippet from The Dick Cavett Show, Cavett specially points out Hendrix’s military experience so that those intending to send hate letters would at least have some knowledge of the person they were about to slander with hate mail. Unsurprisingly, audiences of today look back on his rendition with awe, but still have a tendency to lash out at veterans if their view of the country possesses any negativity (patriotism vs. nationalism, again). Nicks uses Hendricks, as well as the 1968 World Series performance from José Feliciano, as examples of the way in which Americans tend to view the national anthem as sacrosanct, where the slightest changes or the implied imperfections being punishable. Home of the free, indeed.
With this historical foundation laid, Nick sends Bowers and Dahi across the country to conduct their investigation. Not only does Anthem break the mold of a traditional documentary by having proxies at the forefront, it’s more of a road film wherein Bowers and Dahi converse about the town or group that they’re about to meet or have just spoken with while footage roles of them driving between locations. This allows the documentary to seem of the people, journeymen, really, because the two musicians are on the road as the people they speak with may often finds themselves in order to make a living. But it’s not the wings these two are interested in, but the roots from which their music comes. In each stop, whether musical mainstays like San Francisco, Detroit, Nashville, or Tulsa, or smaller locales like Clarksdale, Mississippi, the two sit down in a performance space where they play along with the musicians before asking them questions about their locations link to music, their thoughts on the anthem, and what they think a new anthem might sound like. Through these conversations, a common connection forms among the seemingly disconnected cities in which a community and culture of musical tradition is identified. What’s particularly moving is the way in which each group of musicians eagerly explores the pluses and minuses of crafting a new anthem because of the complexity of musical history, which has many roots in the slave trade and cultural extermination via European expansion. Rather than turn away from that, Anthem confronts it in order to seek a new melody that can unify us all.
Anthem is, perhaps, a little too idealistic in its approach, as though conversing with constituents of five cities is enough to craft consensus and, is in some ways, repetitive in its structural methods. But it’s no less toe-tapping and mind-opening for those who either (a) never saw the connection between country and gospel/planation music and (b) is too limited by their heteronormative European-centric view to consider that maybe “The Star-Spangled Banner” and those who use it as a political tool are far too often nationalists and too rarely patriots. When it gets into this, Anthem is sobering, but as it’s more frequently interested in being accessible, it lacks teeth to confront the troubling history with any temerity.
Screened during Tribeca Film Festival 2023.
Available on Hulu June 28th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Tribeca Film Festival 2023 Anthem webpage.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.