Review by Sean Boelman
The national anthem has become a contentious topic in recent years, the subject of numerous protests, but there’s not really been a solution. The idea behind Anthem is undeniably interesting, but the execution is somewhat lacking and superficial, as if it was made in fear of challenging people.
The documentary follows Kris Bowers and DJ Dahi as they set out on a journey across America to discover America’s musical identity with the ultimate goal of reinventing the national anthem. It’s the type of film that has the potential to be very challenging and provocative, what Nicks has created is somewhat shallow.
Ultimately, the choice of subjects for the movie makes it feel more like a television special than a full-fledged documentary. Although Bowers and Dahi are both talented musicians, their dynamic occasionally comes across as somewhat staged for the camera. Ultimately, their role in the documentary is more akin to that of a travel show host than an active participant.
For many portions of the movie, it feels like we are getting a vague musical history of the genre, rather than an exploration of the creation of this “new” anthem. However, for a film that is so clearly supposed to be about multiculturalism, the genres of music they choose to explore and represent are shockingly mainstream.
Some of the more interesting aspects of the movie are those which interrogate the meaning of the current national anthem, as well as national anthems in general. The film asks some very difficult questions, especially about the supposed “blasphemy” of performing the song with variations when in reality, some of the most famous renditions are from people who put their unique cultural spin on the melody.
The way in which the movie cuts between these two different elements — musical history and political commentary — is not entirely satisfying. And by the time Bowers and Dahi get to the point of actually composing the new song they hope will represent the nation’s culture, there is only a brief bit of runtime, so this feels extraordinarily rushed.
Furthermore, considering that the film is made by Peter Nicks, who is one of the most impressive documentarians working today, the shooting style is disappointingly lacking in personality. Although the cinematography and editing are perfectly competent, it feels frustratingly nondescript considering that this is a story about artists creating something unique.
No one is going to deny that Anthem has its heart in the right place, and while it’s largely inoffensive — other than to conservatives who will no doubt be enraged by the challenge to such an ubiquitous symbol — it’s also rather unimpressive. Ultimately, the movie makes a much bigger deal out of this story than it is.
Anthem screens at the 2023 Tribeca Festival, which runs June 7-18 in NYC and June 19 through July 2 online.