Documentaries were made for obscure topics like this. Who knew tens of thousands of fans attend barbershop quartet competitions every year? And that so many take it so seriously? Aengus James' highly entertaining American Harmony captures the personalities and performances of its a cappella competitors.
Following a quartet of quartets as they make their way to the International Quartet Championship, the film takes you inside the challenges and struggles of its colorful performers. Without musical accompaniment, each group trades in standards, '50s doo-wop, Broadway showstoppers, American songbook adaptations, pop classics and even self-penned parodies. But even as they crack jokes or try to make the ladies swoon, it's clear to every participant that this is a competition, and they take it very seriously.
There's Reveille, the 30-year vets from New York who augment their singing with humor and eccentric costumes. Clearly shaggy underdogs in a sea of polished stars, they doggedly compete even as one of their members undergoes chemotherapy for a brain tumor. Closer to the winner's circle we meet Vocal Spectrum, the highly polished new kids on the block who boast technical perfection but lack the razzle-dazzle personality of other acts. OC Times, on the other hand, are well-coifed, fresh-faced heartthrobs from California who earned the bronze in 2005 and see themselves as the next generation of winners. And then there's Max Q, a "dream team" that boasts two previous gold medal-winners — an egotistical baritone and self-doubting lead singer — yet disappointingly brings home the silver year after year. (The ironic outcome of winning the gold means busting up your quartet, as the Barbershop Harmony Society prohibits top winning groups from competing again.)
James does a fine job taking you inside the preparations, anxieties and strategies of the competitors. His doc is filled with constant vocal delights, showcasing the singers' talents and highlighting their passion, commitment and competitiveness. Unfortunately, he skimps on content and context. Though he focuses on some engaging subjects, we actually learn very little about who these people are in the "real" world, what they do and what drives them to dedicate so much time and energy to their hobby. Similarly, the rules, politics and traditions of the competition are rendered in vague strokes, and the rabid fans reduced to backdrop. For instance, it's made clear that winners do not earn a cash prize but it's never articulated why, or what their victories mean to them (aside from paid touring schedules).
Those quibbles aside, American Harmony is 90 very engaging minutes, filled with soaring harmonies and lively subjects who win us over with their enthusiasm and camaraderie.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 20-21, and at 2 and 4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 22. Call 313-833-3237.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.