Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on February 23, 2012
In 1968 five documentary films were nominated for an Oscar but you’d never know that from looking at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences website. The site claims to feature a complete list of all the Oscar nominees and winners, but on the official web page for the 41st Oscar ceremony there are only four nominees listed instead of the customary five. James Blue’s A FEW NOTES ON OUR FOOD PROBLEM, Harry Chapin‘s THE LEGENDARY CHAMPIONS, David H. Sawyer‘s OTHER VOICES and Bill McGaw’s JOURNEY INTO SELF all receive credit but the original Oscar winning documentary of 1968 is suspiciously absent.
Despite the website snub, the fact remains that YOUNG AMERICANS took home the award for Best Documentary that year but director Alexander Grasshoff was forced to return his Oscar a few months later due to one of the Academy’s most notorious blunders. Thankfully the documentary still exists even if it has been forgotten by the Academy and it remains a fascinating relic from a decade that I too often categorize as “swinging” and “groovy.” I must point out that there’s nothing swinging or groovy about YOUNG AMERICANS. In fact, it’s an extremely square film but it offers audiences a unique and undeniably conservative look at American culture in the sixties that is as revealing as it is deceiving.
Alexander Grasshoff’s Oscar nominated film documents the formation of the singing group or show choir known as the Young Americans. We then follow this group of wholesome young people as they sing and dance their way across the country during a summer bus tour. The kids generously interact with one another, friendships form and romance seems to blossom between some of the girls and boys but it all seems incredibly staged. There’s no sense of spontaneity and groupthink pervades the proceedings. It’s nearly impossible to get any real sense of who any of the Young Americans are from the film. Their individual personalities are masked behind look-alike costumes and the cookie cutter teenage dilemmas they face seem almost too quaint to be real. The minor conflicts that arise include an unwanted dog that joins the tour for a few days and chews up some costumes before it’s sent home and concerns crop up over an affectionate young couple that is caught holding hands. With a few location changes, better music and different fashion choices you could easily mistake YOUNG AMERICANS for a 1940s musical but those classic films were better directed and much more engaging and sincere. Like many popular show choir groups the Young Americans rely more on chutzpah than actual talent to get by so the musical numbers range from cringe worthy to mildly entertaining but your own mileage will vary. If you enjoy listening to outmoded standards like “(Won’t You Come Home) Bill Bailey” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” sung by jovial young people you’ll undoubtedly find the film more appealing than I did. One member of the Young Americans that will be familiar to many viewers is Vicki Lawrence who went on to gain fame and success on THE CAROL BURNETTE SHOW. She’s not given much to do in YOUNG AMERICANS but she stands out as one of the group’s funnier performers.
With all its faults and failings, YOUNG AMERICANS does offer conservative audiences a kinder and gentler look at clean cut young people in the ‘60s who follow orders, respect the adults in their life, celebrate traditional values and apparently want to do some kind of good in a world that isn’t always that welcoming. I find it funny that so many reviews of the film written during its release and today spend a lot of time pointing out the movie’s naive outlook. Although it was shot in 1967 during one of the most contentious times in American history, politics play no part in the lives of the young people featured in YOUNG AMERICANS. Contrary to popular belief, during the sixties (just like today), many young people and adults simply went on with their lives apparently impervious to pertinent political issues, war, racial strife and inequality between the sexes. They worked, put food on the table, raised families, shopped, vacationed and continued on with their lives completely unaffected by concerns outside of their own social sphere. This kind of willful innocence may seem odd to modern audiences but I suspect that many viewers who watch the film will find it easy to relate to the fresh faced smiling young people who populate the movie.
The Young Americans claim to have no political or religious affiliation but it’s impossible to ignore the conservative bent of the film. It’s also worth noting that some of the songs featured in YOUNG AMERICANS are gospel tunes and religious hymns. It’s hard to imagine this group welcoming atheists and agnostics into their ranks with open arms and their musical tour occasionally feels like a crusade. Some of the most genuine moments in the film emerge organically from the nameless strangers who bear witness to the oddball antics of the Young Americans. This includes a group of older men who are caught on camera arguing about the US involvement in the Vietnam War. The Young Americans converge on the heated discussion only to drown out the debate with a bizarre rendition of Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus that will remind today’s audiences of a flash mob gone awry. In the movie’s most moving scene the Young Americans perform for an audience of convicted felons at a prison who seem sincerely touched by their performance. It’s moments like these that must have won over Academy voters when they nominated the film for a Best Documentary Oscar.
I hesitate using the word “documentary” to describe YOUNG AMERICANS because the entire film is obviously rehearsed to such a degree that it could just as easily be labeled a musical drama. And this begs the question, how in the world did YOUNG AMERICANS ever get nominated for an Oscar to begin with? I realize that standards were different in 1967 but I’ve seen two of the other nominated documentaries from the same year including JOURNEY INTO SELF, which eventually received the Oscar after YOUNG AMERICANS was disqualified, and there’s no reason to question their nominations. But to include YOUNG AMERICANS in that category seems odd to me and I can’t help but wonder if the Academy suffered some kind of backlash after the awards ceremony? There’s no evidence of this so I hesitate to make note of it but I couldn’t help but ponder the question while I was recently watching the film for the first time. Director Alexander Grasshoff’s was eventually forced to return his Oscar after the Academy claimed that a sneak preview of YOUNG AMERICANS shown in 1967 disqualified it from being nominated for the 1968 Academy Awards and by all accounts he was extremely disappointed by the unfortunate turn of events. In a 2008 interview with Grasshoff’s wife published in the Los Angeles Times following his death she recalled that, “We slept with the Oscar the first night” after receiving it. And she also mentions that having to return the award was “painful” for them both.
Although Grasshoff’s may have suffered some regret over his Oscar loss for YOUNG AMERICANS, he went on to make other successful documentaries including FUTURE SHOCK (1972) with Orson Welles and JOURNEY TO THE OUTER LIMITS (1973). He also directed episodes of many popular television shows including THE ROCKFORD FILES (1974), KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER (1974) and CHiPS (1977). Life didn’t end for YOUNG AMERICANS either. The film gained some notoriety after clips from it were featured in Joe Dante’s MOVIE ORGY (1968).
The Young Americans were originally formed by Milton C. Anderson in 1962 and they’re credited with being the first touring show choir mixing choreography with choral singing. They spawned many imitators such as Up With People while encouraging high school’s across the country to form their own homegrown show choirs. The Young Americans also appeared on numerous TV shows in the ‘60s and ‘70s and performed with renowned entertainers like Judy Garland, Bing Cosby and Bob Hope. Today the Young Americans are still performing around the world and promoting what they call their “Musical Outreach” program. They offer, “Comprehensive performance workshops” that “enhance a young person’s self-esteem” while helping them “develop critical thinking and self-discipline skills.” Their influence can even be linked to the widely popular television show GLEE, which follows a template originally created by Milton C. Anderson.
YOUNG AMERICANS is currently playing On Demand but as far as I know it isn’t available on video or DVD. I assume that fans of GLEE and anyone who appreciates show choirs would find the film enjoyable and interesting. For the rest of us it provides a memorable look back at a different aspect of the sixties. Show choirs like the Young Americans and Up With People were originally an antidote to the wild rock and roll and catchy pop songs that held wide appeal for many young people. Lots of parents and authority figures preferred to see these well-behaved wholesome young folks belting out familiar standards that reminded them of the “good old days” and they encouraged their kids to support and participate in show choirs. Today show choirs might seem innocuous but in the sixties they were definitely making their own social statement by rejecting popular culture. In its own unique way YOUNG AMERICANS provides a picture window look at the culture wars that started in the sixties and are still raging today.
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