Review: ‘American Harmony’
By golly, Miss Molly! I had no Earthly idea I would have this much fun watching a documentary about competitive barbershop quartets. Part of me is ashamed to admit this, but then the better half of me knows that some of the best things in life come from where you least expect it. Now, I wouldn’t call ‘American Harmony’ one of the “best” things in my life, but any movie that can make me perk up and watch attentively and actually come away feeling a little more positive about my day is worth my time.
Like any good documentary, ‘American Harmony’ has both entertaining and enlightening aspects to it’s story. The film creates the appropriate moods for the audience to be feeling as the real-life characters experience them, or as they reflect upon past experiences. Being a film about a competitive event, or events, the filmmaker is able to capture that tension that goes along with any competitive event. The film follows a handful of accomplished quartets as they travel across the country, performing and competing in towns from Iowa City to Little Rock to New York City and more.
‘American Harmony’ was produced and directed by Aengus James, whose previous roles in “the movies” were as an actor in ‘Bringing Down the House’ (2003) and one episode of ‘Alias’. One of the first things you notice about this film during the opening sequence is that there’s a clear effort taken to convey itself seriously, but not at the expense of it’s playful energy, which is ultimately what barbershop quartets are all about, alongside the music.
To better illustrate the scope of the popularity of competitive barbershop quartets, this “calling” (NOT a hobby, as explained by one practitioner) is not just a nationwide phenomenon, despite having originated in the United States, it’s actually become a global phenomenon with international competitions including barbershop performers from Finland, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Ireland, South Africa, Sweden, The Netherlands, Great Britain, Denmark, Israel, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and parts of the former Soviet Union.
The charm of ‘American Harmony’ resides within it’s characters and the coming together of all these characters during competitions. Aside from the performances, both comedic and otherwise, the quartet’s costumes are often equally as eccentric as the performances. Most quartet’s perform in an array of vivid suits (including black velvet) or playful uniforms, but for some the costume is just as much part of the show as their voices, dawning themed costumes from crash test dummies to mafia-themed and from Steak ‘N Shake cooks to the Wizard of Oz.
The film focuses on four specific quartets, including the popular and successful favorites Max Q, whose tenor and baritone oddly resemble Lou Costello and Brad Garrett, the potentially upsetting challengers OC Times, the rookies Vocal Spectrum and the 30 year veterans Reveille. The drama and tension develops within the more intimate stories of these four groups. The members of Max Q struggle internally with the idea that their reign at the top may be coming to an end, while the young members of Vocal Spectrum and OC Times are learning to embrace their emerging success as the hot new talent. On the flip side, Reveille is an old school quartet, wise in the understanding that winning isn’t everything but they continue for the love and passion of the art.
The characters take their flavor out into the world as well, showing it’s a way of life rather than just a hobby. One of the funniest parts of ‘American Harmony’ occurs when one of the quartet’s spontaneously serenade their waitress at a local restaurant, and seeing her reaction and the look on her face could be interpreted as a desire to take the whole quartet home right then and there to show her appreciation. [wink, wink] Conversely, one of the most painful parts of the film occurs when OC Times attempts to perform “Dance With Me” in competition but misses the mark.
One of the best, although bittersweet parts of ‘American Harmony’ is the story of Reveille’s tenor Roger Payne. Despite undergoing chemotherapy for a brain tumor, Roger insists that his continued involvement and participation with the quartet is just as much a part of his treatment as the chemo. To see him perform shows his deep passion for the art, even with the apparent physical effects the tumor and his treatment are having on him.
‘American Harmony’ is a film that has good times and hard times. As potentially one of the best documentaries of the year, this film will certainly please many people and is certainly likely to surprise many more, including myself. From it’s playful beginning to it’s powerful ending that ushers in a new beginning and respectfully lets an old friend pass, ‘American Harmony’ could possibly open up this classic art form to a whole new generation.
‘American Harmony’ opens June 19 in Saint Louis at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema.