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American Harmony

Documentary on Barbershop Quartets

Above: "American Harmony"

“American Harmony” (opened October 2 at Reading Gaslamp Stadium Theaters) played last month at the San Diego Film Festival. Now it gets a theatrical engagement.

Barbershop quartets may not sound like the most fascinating of subjects for a feature documentary but that’s kind of the point of Aengus James's “American Harmony.” James mde the film in part to answer a question: How can something that has a vast and enthusiastic worldwide following remain so under the radar? Vast and enthusiastic following? Really? I have to admit that I never thought barbershop quartets as having a vast following but James’ documentary goes a long way to changing my initial perceptions.

His tribute begins with a bit of old archive footage and history. Then he focuses on the competition that consumes all serious barbershop quarteters -- the International Quartet Champion. (the film points out the irony that winning often means the break-up of the champion quartet since Barbershop Harmony Society rules prohibit them from competing again as a group). So James follows a few of the top groups to see how they fare in the competition. Along the way he allows them to tell their personal stories and he examines the popularity of this particular music genre. James shows us a massive auditorium pack to the brim with fans intently watching the competition. One woman describes how her boyfriend was treated like Elvis by fans, while one group reveals that after a third place win they were booked almost every weekend for a year.

James tries to liven up his films with quick montages of interviews with both fans and singers. In one sequence I was intrigued by a quick cut of a quartet dressed as crash test dummies. He also shows the OC Times, a younger group, intercut with young girls in the audience swooning. So James seems to be trying very hard to create a new image for barbershop quartets. But sometimes the hyperbole of the film sounds is a bit much. One man says, “It crushes ‘American Idol’ boys, barbershop is where it’s at.” But a sequence involving an obsessed Japanese fan is lots of fun.

As the film progresses I discovered that the singer often do use costumes and even props in their performance and that “showmanship” is a key component to how they rank. The performances James captures are fun and the talent on display is impressive. Yet the bottom line is that if you don’t like this style of music, you probably won’t like the film, and if you do love it, then the film will be a delight. But I will suggest that if you’re uncertain about what barbershop music is then you might want to see this entertaining documentary and decide for yourself if you might be converted.

“American Harmony” is a lively documentary about a music genre that has managed to remain popular yet out of the mainstream media. What I enjoy about films like this and “Wordplay” (about crossword fanatics), is the passion and dedication. I may not thrill at barbershop music but I enjoy seeing people who devote themselves to something and are willing to do anything to pursue what they love. James captures that passion.

Companion viewing: “Shall We Sing?,” “Wordplay,” “Young at Heart”

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