Friday, August 26, 2011

Overlooked DVD of the month - AMERICAN HARMONY

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.


  1. As one of the fanatics that you saw in the movie, I am very pleased to hear that you were able to overcome your prejudices and enjoy the movie.
    You make several comments to our racially homogenous appearance. Guilty as charged. Like many people and organizations that are 75 years old, we were rooted in racist times. We are working hard to change that. Fortunately, as we get younger (members) we also grow more diverse. Even a few years later, the landscape has changed.
    Our collegiate version of the same competition is already displaying a greater spectrum of diversity. This is encouraging, and we hope that with exposure to movies like this, we may be able to accelerate the change. Music is universal,and harmony is something that our members try to achieve both musically and socially. All are welcome in our organization, and we invite your readers to be a part of the changes. Local chapter meetings can be found at this link:

    Thanks again for sharing.

    Michael Klein
    Exec VP, Northeastern District
    Barbershop Harmony Society
    Lowell, MA Chapter

  2. Great to hear from you Songster Mike! And also good to hear about the increasing diversity of the singers. It strikes me the more I think about it that in an ever more narcissistic world of single singer prime time talent shows, the concept of close harmony singing is one to be applauded.