American Anthem

American Anthem (1986)

“He’s really a great gymnast, but he’s not doing much any more.”

From the great heights of cinematic excellence I witnessed yesterday, I have fallen. Crashing through the floorboards I’ve landed in a heaping pile of foulness vomited up by the 80’s and immediately forgotten and left to rot. Lying here in the celluloid muck, I’m left to wonder how this all came to be….

It began somewhere in Hollywood, deep in the cold depths where a normal human would keep a heart some movie executive, I don’t know his name, let’s call him Eric, had an idea. The 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles had been a huge hit. Eric had seen Mary Lou Retton win the gold and with it the hearts of America, he had done so while in the middle of days-long drug-fueled orgy involving two transvestites and a naive young wannabe fresh off the bus from Ohio or Iowa or Idaho, but he was sure he had seen it. He had seen the United States Men’s team crush the competition and take home the gold for America. He had seen it through bleary eyes as he lay on the marble tiles of his guest-house bathroom at the end of a two-day drug-fueled three-way involving an A-List director and a never-was blonde who needed a big break or a ticket on  a bus back to Mississippi or Missouri or wherever she was from. Eric had seen it he knew he had to make the most of it. America was ready, GYMNASTICS was the next big thing. It was so obvious, thought Eric, the massive amount of cocaine in his system enabling him to think more clearly than ever before, like it always did. It wouldn’t even matter what the story was, he could always hire some drone to type up some words. So long as Gymnastics was the star it wouldn’t even matter. Then, blinking Eric looked again at the TV screen. Looking at the young man with the body of a Greek god and a face that made even Patrick Swayze look like Pat Buchanan, Eric had another stroke of genius. This was too perfect. It was unbelievable… but he believed it. Eric knew his own genius after all. He knew this could never go wrong. He would cast this gymnast -no- this AMERICAN CHAMPION, as the lead in his gymnastics movie! He could do real gymnastics and everything. Sure he might not have any acting experience. But how hard could acting be anyhow, thought Eric, ACTORS do it. But could Tom Cruise land perfectly one of those flipping spinning landing things? Eric thought not. It made perfect sense. If gymnastics was going to star, you needed to get a gymnast TO star!

At least that’s how I figure it must have gone down. For anyone still reading the turd-biscuit who’s origins I’ve been describing is American Anthem, released in 1986 and starring Mitch Gaylord, who collected America’s first ever perfect 10.0, along with four medals in Los Angeles, and who almost collected a Razzie for his “acting” in this movie. (He wound up losing to whoever was in the duck suit in Howard the Duck. Having seen both films, Gaylord was unjustly snubbed.) To ensure Gaylord wasn’t outshone as a thespian by any of his co-stars the producers cast future queen hockey wag Janet Jones as the female lead and filled the rest of the cast with accomplished national and world-class gymnasts with no acting experience whatsoever.

The first half of the movie is devoted to establishing what I’ll reluctantly call “the plot.” Gaylord plays Steve Tevere, a high-school football and gymnastics star who turned down a full-ride college football scholarship because he was afraid, or possibly because he took a job to support the family when his father was laid-off, or possibly due to the injury it’s not quite clear.

Acting is hard.

Steve has a troubled relationship with his father, a remarkably well-rounded and nuanced charact- sorry I couldn’t even type that. His father is an erratic grump with no first name, who, in need of a new trade is apparently trying to teach himself computer programing. Mr. Tevere probably caused Steve’s arm injury when in the course of an argument revealed in flashback, he grabbed the arm of his Adonis-like son and twisted it a little bit. Although its also possible that the injury occurred due to a hard tackle in a football game. Although maybe the point of the weirdly lit flashback sequence was that Steve blocked out the paternal arm-twisting and imagined the injury was from football instead. It’s not quite clear.

Steve also has a little brother to whom he gives a three-wheeler at in the opening montage, while a giant “foreshadowing” sign flashes on screen, and is otherwise unimportant until the big off-road chase scene. Ok, there’s no sign. There’s also a thirty-something woman in the house that is almost certainly either Steve’s mom or step-mom. It’s not quite clear.

Anyhow, Steve has given up gymnastics because he’s too busy working but he still hangs out at the local gym too much. As it happens the gym is run by the renowned gymnastics instructor Coach Soranhoff played by a real actor, Michael Pataki (Drago’s trainer from Rocky IV). Soranhoff, in addition to running an elite gymnastics club in the middle of bumblefuk-nowhere informs us that he is the head coach for the US National team and that said national team will be selected at the big National Championships meet which has been scheduled for the end of the movie. The national team will consist of either the top three or the top six finishers at the National Championships. It isn’t really clear.

Meanwhile, Jones plays Julie Lloyd, from New York, who’s wealthy parents don’t care about her gymnastics career, but have allowed her to relocate to wherever the movie is set to train with Coach Soranhoff. She also happens to have a cousin, Arthur, that conveniently lives in this rural town. His leg was crippled in a car accident that killed his parents, but Julie’s parents didn’t even come to the funeral. (Frowny faces ensue as Julie and Arthur discuss this. Then she immediately repeats the story to Mike.) This plot point is made very clear, so you know it’s going to be important later. Just kidding, it never comes up again. Arthur’s a cool dude though, he totally makes this radical synthesizer dance music on his awesome keyboards, that he sits around playing all day. His music is totally better for accompanying Julie’s floor routine than that stupid classical music her coach wants her to use, and he totally thinks she should us his instead. Oh, what is she to do? It’s not like she traveled half-way across the country to learn from one of those two. (Spoiler: Of course she ignores the one piece of advice we see the coach give her in the whole movie and goes with Arthur’s synth-pop.)

While this is going on Steve sees Julie at the gym. They start dating and he decides to become a gymnast. They make out. There’s melodrama with Steve’s dad. He decides to quit again. Misses the bus to nationals and has a fight with his dad. Just when they’re about to have the big blow-out the film has been building to (maybe) Steve’s brother walks in and sees them fighting resulting in his brother running away on his three-wheeler, resulting in Steve having to chase him down, resulting in Steve chasing him off a cliff, resulting in a big dramatic shot of the three-wheeler tumbling off the cliff, resulting in Steve having to save his brother who is hanging from a branch at the edge of the cliff. Resulting in Steve telling his maybe mom that he is going to nationals without resolving anything with his dad. He then apparently teleports to Nationals in Phoenix. How he got there isn’t addressed at all, but Julie forgives him for whatever their obligatory drama was and the competition is beginning. As the first event is commencing Steve’s brother is seen entering the stands along with a crew of previously-unseen menacing/friendly(?) bikers.  Meanwhile his parents are at home listening to the meet on the radio, or possibly watching on TV. It isn’t really clear.

The last hour of the movie consists of the National Championship meet. This is basically like watching an entire night of Olympic gymnastics compressed into one hour. It really is a high level gymnastic exhibition with a scripted narrative structure to maximize the drama. (So basically pro-wrestling.) Of course, one problem is that most laymen can’t tell the difference between a 9.6 and a 9.85 routine, so we’re basically left depending on the PA announcer to tell us whether a routine is supposed to be great or merely very very good. There are three things that really stand out during the competition.

First is the fact that the arena for the United States National Gymnastics Championships is apparently lit like the VIP room at the Glitter Factory.

Gymnasty.

Second, the fact that Janet Jones is the only person playing a gymnast that isn’t actually a gymnast becomes tremendously clear. Julie is supposedly the best overall gymnast on the women’s team, but we only see her floor exercise and maybe half of her balance bar routine. Jones is clearly an excellent dancer, but clearly they had to use a double for any tumbling runs. The cuts to a wide shot, with no good look at her head, any time she does something gymnastic is all the more obvious because of the great close-ups we get of everyone else in their routines.

Third, while Steve might possibly have traveled to Phoenix for nationals via his motorcycle, having a crazy adventure and encountering a gang of bikers along the way in a marvelous deleted scene. His dad DEFINITELY has the power to teleport.  A third of the way through the finals we see Mr. Tevere finally turn on his on TV to listen to the event, (instead of pouting and listening from the other room.) However, he suddenly appears at the arena to give Steve a manly head-nod of moral support for the last couple of events.

So the event ends with Julie dancing her way to victory thanks to Arthur’s mad beatz, and Steve coming from behind thanks to a perfect 10 on the high-bar to secure the third (and possibly last) place on the national team. That’s how the movie ends. I have explained the entire “plot.”  I have done so without a spoiler warning. I have done so intentionally. I have not spoiled anything. If you’re still reading this I have saved you. If you choose to watch American Anthem you can do so fully-informed. You can sit back and enjoy the non-acting and non-plot without trying to reason out whatever is happening. (Because you know it is impossible.) You’re welcome.

Bottom line, this is not a good movie. But it is an interesting experiment. Director Albert Magnoli struggles to get anything out of completely green “actors.” From the large amount of dialog that is spoken off camera through and the weird way the plot jumps around, I’m guessing that this movie changed a lot between the end of principle photography and the final cut. It doesn’t work though. This is a bad, bad movie. However, it might just be so bad its good. Your mileage may vary on that, and I’m recommending you avoid this movie unless you’ve got a bunch of people who enjoy both mocking lousy movies, and watching fantastic gymnastics. Then, this just could be your ticket. You weirdo.

[American Anthem (1986) – Directed by Albert Magnoli – Rated PG-13]

OM|ED - Olympic Film Festival
OM|ED Rating: Avoid Seeing