Movie Review: American Harmony

CD Reviews

American Harmony is a documentary directed by Aengus James, documenting a year-long journey to the International Championships of Barbershop Singing. The film will air on The Documentary Channel on February 12, 2012 at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET (5 p.m. and 8 p.m. PT)

To explain why American Harmony is so effective, it’s worth taking apart the name. Although the film focuses on an International competition, the stories it portrays are distinctively American. There are four major threads to consider.

When we watch David versus Goliath, most of us root against Goliath for a love of the underdog. But if Goliath actually does take a fall, can we help feeling a twinge of sympathy at the giant’s disappointment for falling short of expectations? For any favorite who has lost and for every bridesmaid who never made it to the altar herself, Max Q has a heartbreakingly familiar story to share. The film opens on the 2005 Internationals where the star-studded quartet is expected to take home gold medals, only to walk away with silver instead. The arc of the film is very much about the foursome’s journey toward redemption. At the fore stand Tony De Rosa, a talented role player who is singing lead for the first time in a high stakes situation, and Jeff Oxley, a been-there-done-that pro with international championship credentials who oozes confidence and hungers to stake his claim one more time as the best in the world.

OC Times has a very different story to tell. This young group earns medals for the very first time in 2005. Eager to prove the quartet is no flash in the pan, in the year that follows the four guys continue to mold themselves, collecting feedback from a professional coach to refine their act.

Like OC Times, Vocal Spectrum is a collection of young talent. The guys won the collegiate barbershop championship, but now enter the fray of professional groups with far greater experience. Other groups concede that the Spectrum boys can sing them under the table, but question if they have enough personality and showmanship to make a dent in post-collegiate competition.

And then there’s Reveille. Members of this final quartet don’t expect to win Internationals. No, theirs is not a story of glory, but one of journey and of struggle. The elder statesmen have sung together in different formations for decades, and members of the group brought the very first comedy act to Internationals. Come 2005, they stake their claim to Internationals with an intention of entertaining the crowd for what might be the last time—one of their staple members, who arranged much of their music, is undergoing chemotherapy to fight a brain tumor, and his prognosis isn’t good.

And so, we have the kings awaiting their thrones, the up-and-comers who have had a taste of medal glory, the upstarts who threaten to shake the barbershop ranks, and the old-timers who just want to make the audience smile. The story is one of diversity and chasing dreams. As such, it is, indeed, fundamentally American.

As for the second word in the title--Harmony--it is most obviously read as it applies to the lovely harmonies barbershop performers put together. In a brilliant aside, barbershop experts discuss “the sound of angels”—how four notes coming from four voices sound exponentially more complex for the way in which those sounds complement one another and create the illusion of a spectrum of notes in between. Taking the idea of harmony one step further, we could discuss the way in which the four distinctive stories harmonize to generate a fascinating narrative for the film. The most compelling interpretation of Harmony may be the way in which the personalities of each group synergize. At one juncture, a lead vocalist discusses how he used to see sound issues as the quartet-as-a-whole’s problem, but now he feels personal responsibility. In another striking moment, a vocalist goes sharp in competition only to find his group mates not angry, but entirely supportive. Through it all, we develop a picture of these groups as men who harmonize with one another as not only artists, but dear friends.

And so, the heart of American Harmony lies in human codependency and the pursuit of greatness—themes any viewer will enjoy. The late stages of the film depend far more on the music itself than a coherent narrative, which risks losing some casual viewers. Just the same, for those who do appreciate barbershop, this is where the documentary becomes most sublime. American Harmony is not an outsider’s assessment of a quirky subculture, but more so a love letter from a small group of enthusiasts to the larger community. The makers of this film love the barbershop art form and trust it to speak for itself.

But when the stories converge in Indianapolis, who does when Internationals? I won’t spoil it for you (though if you’re really curious, you can check the results archive over at The Barbershop Harmony Society and find out). Rest assured, fact can be much stranger than fiction, and the results are quite interesting.

American Harmony is a unique, and simultaneously devastating and inspiring work. Don’t miss it.