I have to admit: The idea of a documentary featuring wall-to-wall barbershop quartets singing gave me pause. My pre-judging conjures up all kinds of images in my mind: matching striped outfits with straw boaters, gigantic mustaches and men singing with one another.
If I take to barbershop quartets I might as well seek out other things that seem irritating, such as mimes. Now, mimes give me serious reservations. I'm pretty sure I don't want to watch anything with them as the subject. Ever. American Harmony might make me rethink that position as it is sweet, charming and uncovers one of those strange American sub-cultures the majority of us never spend time in.
American Harmony works on a couple of different levels. It follows the Internationals competition, organized by the Barbershop Harmony Society, in 2006. We meet the favorites and the underdogs as they practice and talk about the highs, lows and the pressures of their chosen hobby. The film also gives a small dose of barbershop history (the competition dates back to 1939), while doling out an unabashedly pro-barbershop message, and dishes out effusive praise from the first note to the last.
The opening credits of American Harmony play off nicely on the corny reputation of barbershops. We see lots of clichés over a grainy film, but it quickly switches to the present day.
Sure, there are still loud, garish matching suits nobody in their right mind would wear on the street (unless your profession was a pimp in 1978), and the groups are still a quartet, but these guys are singing their guts out. While it's not my thing musically, I found myself respecting their passion and creativity very quickly. The love affair people show for barbershop singing is not a fad, it lasts a lifetime. There is a reverence and appreciation for this singing that is hard to not get pulled into.
Out of the thousands of groups who compete just to make it to the Internationals, only 50 are deemed worthy for the weeklong event. The three main groups the documentary follows are Max Q, OC Times and Reveille.
Max Q is a barbershop supergroup. Called a "power ensemble," they are favorites to win but finished runner-up the previous year and are not happy about it. OC Times is a group of good-looking, boy-next-door types who seem to have female support based on the people in the film who state they are rooting for them. Reveille, a comedic quartet and crowd favorite, are slipping past their prime due to one member's battle with a brain tumor.
In their own strange way, barber shoppers are a band of brothers of the vocal sort. There is a real bond between these men singing together.
There is no musical accompaniment; it's just voices, a fraternity of four men's voices singing.
Even if I don't go for the songs themselves, I like seeing people perform with over-the-top energy and love for what they do onstage. It's kind of inspiring.
The competition is key. Winning drives them. All the men profiled are stars in the barbershop world. They go on tour. They have groupies. People ask for autographs, photos and pay for the chance to sing a song with them. In their non-barbershop lives, they are shown mowing the yard or working at a Chick-Fil-A restaurant. While the bond over singing is nice, the members of these three groups want to win the gold medal as it is what gives them an identity outside their day-to-day world.
A weak element in the film is that there is no real drama in the story. All the teams are really likable, full of seemingly regular guys. There are no real underdogs or villains in their midst. Director Aengus James tries to ratchet up a little suspense, but there is none mostly. A quartet to root for or against (although it's pretty hard not to root for the brain tumor guy and his quartet) would have upped the tension. Having a vested emotional interest always makes these kinds of competition-based documentaries more enjoyable.
That's a minor quibble because American Harmony is a fun, lighthearted and amiable look into a world I knew nothing about before it started. It's not going to make me rush out and get some barbershop records but it has made me rethink some of my opinions on other topics, like mimes. Since I was wrong about barbershop quartets, maybe I'm wrong in my biases against mimes. Anyone have a good mime documentary they can recommend?
Jane Campion has been away for too long. It's been 16 years since Campion wrote and directed The Piano. Sure, she made a few films in that span, but they were underwhelming and not that great. Campion's new film, Bright Star, is a triumphant return to the screen, one of my favorite films released so far in 2009 and might be the best film of her career. Yes, even better than her award-winning The Piano. It's that good.
Bright Star is an unabashed, cinematic ode to romance, verse and love. Set in and around 1818 London, it tells the story of the romance between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne. The pair meets, she reads his latest work, an attraction is born and Fanny begins to loiter near the place where Keats lived with Charles Armitage Brown.
Despite Keats' penniless situation, Brawne is drawn to him and the pair begins a courtship that leads to more serious proclamations of the heart.
Bright Star unfolds like a beautiful, slow dream. The script is intelligent and hyper-literate in its appreciation for language. In the era of the early 19th century, Keats and Brawne's romance equals words, speech, ideas, thoughts and opinions expressed on long walks, ink-stained letters delivered by hand and hungrily read by window light, silent hours by warming fire satisfied by the comforting nearness. Campion focuses on all these little moments and creates a quiet, hushed intensity to the romantic story that is unyielding once it gets its hooks in you.
Bright Star dives headlong into what it is like to be young and in love in 1818 England. This isn't an easy thing to portray on screen without becoming silly or losing authenticity.
Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish play Keats/Brawne, and they both give nice performances with equal doses of pining, rapture or pain. Campion leisurely reveals the hidden, complicated anguish of youth. This is an era where the chaste brushing of lips in a patch of woods as birds sing in the summer sky above means everything. Everything.
The scenes in the film where Keats/Brawne exchange letters were wonderful. In these current times, letter writing is nearly obsolete thanks to blunt, creativity killing and unromantic missives like e-mail and texting. Awful, awful things for the romantic. Old-fashioned is better. Nothing pierces the heart like words put down on paper by the fingers of a lover, and the heartrending ache that comes with the eternal wait for a reply. Keats/Brawne write letters to each other, and the words enter and absorb through narration as the characters are in sun streaked meadows, rooms full of fluttering butterflies or daydreaming of nothing but the other. These few scenes gave me goosebumps, and I wish they could have gone on for an hour.
The film looks incredible. Cinematography was done by Greig Fraser, and he gives Bright Star a look that perfectly complements the tone of the film. There are scenes full of interiors of soft, natural light with shadows and streams of sunlight against the skin. There are scenes outside with flowers radiating in a field, lush green grass beneath the feet or reflections of spare limbs reflecting on the surface of water. The pastoral English countryside has never looked more gorgeous and inviting than it does in Bright Star.
Bright Star is why I love cinema. It is an utterly transforming art form. It embraces you in its fierce intimacy and takes the viewer to a place, to a relationship 190 years in the past, and you exist with the characters. You breathe with them, you suffer with them, your heart beats quicker with them and when it's over, you feel the loss of them and their story. That is cinema at its most powerful. Welcome back, Jane Campion.
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