Thursday, June 4, 2009
Review: "American Harmony"
They say that every good story needs conflict, but there's not much discord in "American Harmony."
Sure, this documentary centers on a competition, between barbershop quartets from all over the country vying for the top prize. But it's more a pageant of hugs and well-wishes than in-your-face standoffs. The snarkiest moment comes when a contestant's wife texts him, calling a competitor's performance "weak."
But even if you aren't a fan of barbershop -- I am -- you'll find this movie an enjoyable plunge into a slice of Americana. And it goes without saying that it's impossible to keep from humming or tapping your toe afterward.
The most amazing thing about the International Championships of Barbershop Singing is that the winner has to call it quits. Once they win a gold medal, that group is forbidden from competing ever again. Imagine if the reward for winning the Super Bowl was that the team had to be split up and all the players sent to other franchises.
That's why Max Q is such an odds-on favorite going into the 2007 contest, which was held in Indianapolis. It's an all-star foursome of superstars within the world of barbershop, including Tony DeRosa and Jeff Oxley, who have each won the top prize (with other groups) twice before. Oxley is a confident competitor, but lead singer DeRosa admits to getting the jitters.
One of the best aspects of the film -- a hallmark of any good documentary -- is that it immerses you in a world that you may not know much about, and that even seems strange or silly to you. But by seeing what this endeavor means to its participants, we come to understand their little piece of society.
So it's tantalizing to watch these guys in their normal lives -- and most of them are very normal indeed: Middle-aged husbands and workaday drones. But in the subculture of barbershop, they're the Michael Jordan or Peyton Manning of their day.
The main competition to Max Q is OC Times, a group of twentysomething upstarts from California. They're handsome and polished and not a little cocky, yet still eager and a little bedazzled by their burgeoning fame. There's a great scene where Shawn York, who's an anonymous manager of a Chick-fil-A, takes a photograph of their poster outside New York's Lincoln Center, where they will perform in a few hours.
There are a couple of other groups who don't get quite as much time in the spotlight, but add layers to the picture. Vocal Spectrum is a bunch of kids fresh out of college who can't believe they're competing against guys they grew up idolizing.
Reveille is on the other side of the journey, an aging and decidedly frumpy foursome who use comedy in their performances to make up what their singing lacks. But a health issue for one of its members adds a somber tone to their yuks.
"American Harmony," directed by rookie filmmaker Aengus James, may take the soothing route rather than trying to conjure up some dramatic tension. But like the delicious sounds it spotlights, sometimes the right tone is one you create yourself.