American Harmony (2009) – By Cary Conley

Reality television series have never been as popular as they are today, and some of the most popular shows are talent competitions. There is even a televised talent competition for a cappella singers. But there is a relatively little-known international a cappella competition that has been occurring each year for over 70 years, and it is a competition for barbershop quartets.

Barbershop quartets have been around for well over a century, their origins apparently able to be traced back to African-American gospel quartets that literally practiced in barber shops. These quartets recorded in the late 1890’s for Edison and performed throughout the early twentieth century on the Vaudeville circuit. There is even a barbershop quartet association known as the Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS). Each year, the society hosts an annual convention and international quartet competition to select the best quartet in the world from groups that come from countries like the US, Canada, Sweden, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Australia, Ireland, Spain, New Zealand, Finland, and South Africa. People travel from all over the U.S. and Canada to attend the convention and competition and fill some of the largest convention centers and auditoriums in the U.S. to watch the three-day finals competition.Similar to a beauty pageant such as the Miss America Pageant, competitors begin by competing in relatively small district contests, working their way through higher levels of competition until the top 48 quartets meet for the finals during the convention. The number of teams are whittled down from 48 during the first day of competition to 20 during the second day. Finally, there are only 10 teams left to compete one last time for a chance at fame and glory. There are strict rules, such as once a quartet wins, the name of the group is retired and the quartet may never compete again for the title (though the top-placing teams may be booked solid for the next year as an entertainment act). Again, similar to a large beauty pageant, teams have flashy names, even flashier costumes, and a good deal of drama to deal with during the competition.

It is this drama on which the documentary American Harmony focuses. In all the years the competition has been occurring, only one man has ever won the contest three times ("Awesome" Joe Connelly), and he is a legend in the barbershop quartet circuit. But in 2005 and 2006, a supergroup quartet was formed, comprised of four former champions–two of which have won the competition twice–with the sole stated purpose of the group being to win the competition. Never in the history of this competition has a group with this amount of raw talent been formed and never has a group been formed for the express purpose of winning the international competition (of course, all groups that compete would like to win, but the majority of quartets insist they sing for fun). The group’s name is Max Q and is widely recognized as the premiere barbershop quartet in the country, if not the world. They are seeded number one in the tournament. But twice they have come in second place, much to everyone’s surprise. In 2006, many felt they were robbed of the title by a relatively new, up-and-coming quartet, Vocal Spectrum. Now it’s 2007, and the drama has arrived in Indianapolis’ Conseco Fieldhouse. Rounding out the drama is the young and sexy quartet, OC Times, who have placed 5th, 3rd, and 2nd in the last three consecutive tournaments and are again seeded second behind Max Q. While they sing superbly, they are very open about using their sex appeal to win over the audience, something not many viewers might think about when they first hear the term "barbershop quartet". There is also the aging quartet Reveille, the underdogs, who know this is perhaps their last chance to compete as a team since one of the quartet is in the last stages of brain cancer.

Director Aengus James has crafted a fascinating documentary about an unlikely subject, but has done so in such a way that the tension and drama created is palpable. Just as in any major competition, there are the favorites, the newcomers, and the underdogs. There are those that feel some of the competitors are pompous and arrogant while some competitors feel like their teammates have lost previous competitions because of a lack of personal faith in themselves. As the competition continues and the finals edge closer, the viewer senses that someone may implode.

While the first part of the film introduces the viewer to the history and passion surrounding barbershop quartets as well as some of the major players and teams, the second half of the film amps up the tension as we follow these four teams through the pressure-filled months preceding the competition as well as the competition itself. One team does implode–and it’s surprising which team it is–again crystallizing just how intense the competition can be. I was literally on the edge of my seat as the results were announced.

The music is absolutely terrific and the competition is highly entertaining. Many people probably envision these quartets much like the clips we see in old films–beautiful harmonies, but static in their demeanor. This film blows that vision out of the water as we see teams with choreographed routines, comedy skits within their musical numbers, and even full-blown stories within their songs. No matter what genre of music is your favorite, if you appreciate music at all then you have to be impressed not only with the harmonizing, but with the length of time certain singers can hold a note. There isn’t a rock or pop star performing now that can out sing some of the major players in these quartets. And while even the minor quartets are tremendous, even someone inexperienced in barbershop quartet music can observe how much better the top four or five groups are. Max Q’s original number during 2007’s final round–poking fun at themselves for being "losers" and coming in second place several times in a row–is not just musical genius but tremendous comedy.

American Harmony has everything a Hollywood drama would have: drama between teams; drama between individuals within certain teams; a dramatic finish (the tightest judging in the history of the competition, first and second place being decided by only 6 points); laughter; tears; and plenty of sweat-inducing tension during the actual competition. Like the barbershop quartets featured in the film itself, this movie is a winner. Highly recommended.