AMERICAN HARMONY is a lovely little documentary that follows a handful of barbershop quartets as they compete in the annual international competition in Indianapolis. I came to the movie with all the prejudice of one who's sole experience of barbershop was the satirical depiction of pretentious East Coast yuppies in TRADING PLACES. I had images of hearty East Coast brahmins, self-consciously anachronistic. And to a certain extent, I wasn't wrong. There are almost 50 quartets who qualify to get to the international final each year, and I didn't see a single non-white male among them. And the stadium full of fans watching them were, shall we say, similarly racially homogeneous. Still for all that, you can't deny that the music is catchy, the humour gentle and harmless, and the vocal technique impressive. And even if you don't give a damn about barbershop singing there's something compelling about watching these otherwise unremarkable people devoting so much time, energy and emotion to their craft.
Almost against myself, I found myself completely enthralled with the competition, and feeling tense as we got to the final round. And that has to be the proof of a successful documentary. At their best, documentaries take us into niche worlds that we would never have known about, and give us insight and empathy. That's exactly what AMERICAN HARMONY does. Is it perfect? No. The video quality is lo-fi (the movie was shot by director Aengus James), and there isn't enough on the history and context of barbershop singing for my taste. But these are quibbles. AMERICAN HARMONY is a good time, it's insightful, and something of a relief after the relentlessly over-produced caterwauling of Glee.
AMERICAN HARMONY played Boulder, Sedona and Nashville 2009 and was released in the US in 2009. It is available on DVD.