First things first: The new giant-screen, 3-D movie "America's Musical Journey," produced in association with Brand USA with support from Expedia and Air Canada, is terrific. Narrated by Morgan Freeman, it follows musician Aloe Blacc as he travels from U.S. city to U.S. city, delving into the roots of the regional sounds that became widely recognized as American music.
The film has been years in the making and was conceived of prior to the disconcerting slowdown in U.S. arrivals in 2017, a year that saw other countries chalking up healthy increases. The message of the movie -- that immigrants, voluntary and involuntary, helped shape our culture through music -- would hardly have seemed controversial or overtly political when the project started.
That this even needs to be pointed out gets to the root of our falling arrival numbers. Plainly stated, people planning vacations in the U.S. now take into consideration whether they will be welcomed warmly or with suspicion. Apparently, it's enough of a concern for some people in the trip-planning stage that large numbers of potential visitors have chosen to take their vacations elsewhere, resulting in lost U.S. jobs, lost local tax revenue and lost opportunities for exposure to an America that is much more than a megaphone for off-putting political rhetoric.
It's hard to imagine a more perfect messenger for a narrative that stresses diversity as a cornerstone of America's legacy than Aloe Blacc, an African-American son of Panamanian immigrants whose father became a career Marine.
Blacc's story reflects Americans' ability to freely pursue happiness. His first job out of college was as a strategic consultant for Ernst & Young. But music, he told me in an interview before the movie previewed in New York last week, brought him "a lot of comfort and joy." He left corporate America to follow his personal vision of the American Dream.
Growing up in a military family instilled a strong sense of patriotism in Blacc, and he seems comfortable in his role as a "soft" diplomat. When we spoke, he walked a careful line, acknowledging America's image problem while steering clear of the emotional language that has polarized Americans from one another and America from much of the world.
He acknowledges that "many people I encounter in foreign countries are skeptical about the current administration, and that affects their attitude toward the country. There is a sentiment that people outside the country receive from media about America's willingness to accept outsiders. I'd encourage them to consider that there's a lot of political hype and hysteria and that there's a very narrow sector of the public that has exclusionist views. The rest of us understand the importance of humanity, fellowship and the beauty of diversity."
(Blacc also told me that following his stint as a consultant, he had considered pursuing a job in academia. He would have made a brilliant teacher.)
His affection and enthusiasm for the country have been bolstered by his experience as a musician. For his first tour, he borrowed his dad's RV and took a meandering route from Los Angeles to Miami, via Minneapolis. In addition to learning about tire chains for snow and discovering that there are still plenty of streets too narrow for an RV, he realized that "you don't need to be in a big city to have the most fun of your life, as long as you're with the right people."
And as the film beautifully demonstrates, he said his second career has confirmed his belief that "music is the universal language in this country. It really does bring everyone together. I can stand on a stage and see people of different economic strata, different religions, different races, shoulder to shoulder and enjoying themselves."
It likely didn't occur to him when he signed up for the film project, but there's a certain risk in intermingling one's personal brand with a national brand when the nation in question is led by someone who courts controversy and whose words have alienated entire countries. I asked him whether he had any concerns in that regard.
"At the end of the day, it's a good match," he said. "As an artist, I recognize I have a tremendous privilege to represent all of the things I am: representing my blackness, my Americanness, my creativity and, most of all, representing my humanity. That's what my job really is at the end of the day, and I hope it brings joy to people's hearts."
It is one of the film's strengths that it was not designed as an overt counterbalance to the rhetoric coming out of Washington. Rather, it was conceived simply to focus on how America's culture was shaped by diverse influences.
Commenting on the film's message versus our current image problem, Brand USA's chief marketing officer, Tom Garzilli, told me, "Our message is what it has always been and what it will always be. It's important to remind people around the world why they love America so much."
And in the process, perhaps to remind Americans that we are the same nation that, in Blacc's words, understands the importance of humanity, fellowship and the beauty of diversity.