American Harmony is a documentary that spans 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). You can read my review of the film here.
I spoke with director, Aengus James, executive producer, Allan Webb, and producer, Colin King Miller this week to discuss the film.
American Harmony’s greatest strength is no doubt its sincerity and commitment to the form it portrays. It may, therefore, come as a surprise that just a few years ago the director had very little experience with barbershop. James was shooting a film in Kansas about the social-political climate when he stumbled upon a barbershop quartet. “I thought they were a riot!” James said, recalling a group of farmers who had developed a routine over a period of years. After about four weeks of following the group on his days off, they suggested that James check out The International Championships of Barbershop Singing.
James introduced Miller to the barbershop world and idea of a film about it at a time when a number of documentaries centered on competition were coming out (e.g., Spellbound, Murderball). “I thought this would blow all of those movies away,” Miller said. “It was like anything you would see on American Idol times 100, plus the comedy and the showmanship.”
After James’s first taste of competitive barbershop in Salt Lake City, he followed a number of groups along the year-long journey to the next Internationals in Indianapolis. He quickly discovered how difficult a film it would be to make. “It’s really hard to tell a story about four groups of four people. That’s 16 characters … How do you make a viewer connect with those personal stories without feeling like one person represents the whole group is the star?” As James began to assess the nuance of the project, he narrowed the scope of the film to the most compelling story arcs.
Although James went on to say that, throughout the creative process, he always felt he was making a comedy, it’s clear the film has more at stake. “[The film] celebrates a part of America and a part of American unity that’s really important. In our political climate, it’s always about dividing people—this is about unity, something derived from all of our differences into something beautiful.”
Miller carried the point one step further, citing that, although a lot of people look at world as increasingly communal on account of the Internet and Facebook, “there’s also an isolation—everyone’s glued to their phones and their computers. [Barbershop] connects people to each other in a funny, entertaining way. It’s a reminder of how much fun it can be to put your electronics aside and just enjoy being in a group.” He also noted the fusion of different cultures and art forms that have developed barbershop as “a melting pot of sounds that could only come about in America.”
The filmmakers were fortunate to connect with Webb, a 25-year veteran of the Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS) who stated singing in high school and took his talents all the way to a gold medal in the Masters of Harmony International Contest in 2002. He became involved with the film first as an investor in 2006, before becoming a liaison between BHS and BHS chapters that wanted to coordinate screenings in their markets. For Webb, helping to produce and market the film is clearly an extension of his love for the barbershop form on the whole.
“From a musical perspective, barbershop is defined by a set of criteria revolving around chord vocabulary, voicings, and harmonic motion/resolution,” Webb said. “Barbershop is four part a cappella with a harmony part above the melody, is primarily homophonic (with appropriate use of rhythmic devices to provide interest and forward motion), uses strongly voiced close harmony arrangements of primarily consonant chords (avoiding the use of dissonant chords like major sevenths), and with harmonic resolution primarily around the circle of fifths.”
Webb went on to describe that “when a top quartet locks chords … you will hear five or six notes, not just four. That is the technical magic of barbershop when it is done at a high level. At the same time, we also strive to deliver the emotional impact of the song to the audience.”
For all of his appreciation of the musical, technical, and performance aspects of barbershop Webb was also quick to echo his colleagues’ sentiments about the personal and social value of the form. “We have a saying: ‘People come for the music, and stay for the fraternity.’ There is nothing like going to an International Convention with 6,000-10,000 of your best friends and singing for a week. People are up all night singing tags in hotel lobbies. It is something you have to experience to understand.”
While American Harmony celebrates a form and a culture, it does ultimately focus on a select few groups—Max Q, OC Times, Reveille, and to a lesser extent, Vocal Spectrum. How does one reconcile images of this sizeable barbershop community with these few stars? And how do these stars exist as major personalities in the context of competitions and conventions while living everyday lives off stage? “I was fascinated with the concept of weekend celebrities,” James explained. “Having women swooning over you and people adoring you, but Monday your back to our normal life, taking out the garbage. Celebrity has a very strange effect on peoples’ psyche.”
Indeed, the personalities spotlighted in American Harmony will likely get their brightest 15 minutes of fame to date this Sunday when The Documentary Channel airs the movie nationwide. But when you tune in, should you watch the film with friends or on your own? Based on his experience at festivals, James marveled at “how different the film feels watching it with multiple people versus by yourself … [In a crowd] it becomes like a combat movie with people yelling at the screen.”
The film has clearly captured not only the attention of, but a real fire from viewers. “[Barbershop] suffers from a lack of good representation in the mass media,” Webb said. “Being a hundred years old, there's a lot of baggage in the public perception of what the style is that is hard to change. I think American Harmony goes a long way towards providing the public with a better understanding of what it is. Hopefully, that will eventually translate into more people singing barbershop long term.”
The filmmakers certainly invite you to take plunge into the barbershop world this Sunday. The movie clocks in at well under two hours, but the music has every chance of sticking with viewers for a lifetime.
You can learn more about American Harmony at the film's official site.