Filmmaker Aengus James sympathetically captures the trills of victory and the agony of defeat at the Intl. Championships of Barbershop Singing in “American Harmony,” an efficiently constructed and emotionally involving docu with a sharp eye for revealing detail and a pleasing amount of low-key charm. Although it’s a long shot to attract a crossover aud during its ongoing limited theatrical rollout, the pic likely will be prized as homevid fare by those attuned to its subject matter.

Early scenes hit the right note of bemused curiosity as James takes viewers into the world of barbershop quartet competitions, a realm where much-awarded champs are treated like royalty — a vet of three different prize-winning ensembles is referred to, respectfully, as “Awesome Joe” Connelly — and even the jolliest of jokers admit to the intensity of their dedication to performing.

Without musical accompaniment, they sing songs ranging from Broadway show tunes to ’50s doo-wop classics to standards retrofitted with semi-satirical lyrics. But even when they’re playing for laughs, there’s no mistaking that they’re also playing for keeps.

“Look at us,” says one of four singers bedecked in what appear to be orange hazmat suits and Mexican wrestlers’ masks. “Does this look like it’s a casual hobby?”

Max Q, an all-star quartet of vets from past prize-winning groups, is introduced as the presumptive favorite at the 2005 finals in Salt Lake City. When they actually finish in second place, the four singers struggle to maintain their sang-froid, but they can’t quite hide their surprise and disappointment.

“American Harmony” follows Max Q and a handful of other quartets during the year or so before the next international finals, in Indianapolis. Despite the emphasis on team playing (and, of course, tight harmonies), two members of the group — seriously sincere Jeff Oxley, who could pass muster as Sylvester Stallone’s stunt double, and roly-poly Tony DeRosa — gradually emerge as the pic’s “stars.” Despite their vaunted reputations in their musical subculture, they wind up coming across as appealing underdogs.

Max Q’s main rivals are OC Times, a group of younger singers who freely admit to flirting with femme fans during performances, and Reveille, four middle-aged guys with colorful onstage shtick and costuming that reference their New York roots. Helmer James tactfully but effectively focuses on the offstage travails of Roger Payne, a Reveille singer who occasionally misses rehearsals because of his chemotherapy treatments for brain cancer. Because “American Harmony” is a documentary and not a scripted drama, this subplot doesn’t pay off with predictable emotional uplift.

The docu does little to satisfy curiosity about what James’ subjects do for a living when they’re not competitively harmonizing. (Pic makes a point of emphasizing that the competitions don’t award cash prizes, although winners may go on to profitably concertize.) Nor does the film tell us much about thousands of avid fans who flock to competitions.

Pic primarily is a showcase for spirited onstage performances and sometimes humorous, sometimes anxious backstage preparations. As such, it is frequently amusing, never condescending and almost always fascinating. Tech values are admirably polished.

American Harmony

  • Production: An Abramaroma release of a This Is Just a Test Prods. production. Produced by Aengus James, Colin King Miller. Executive producers, Gary DePew, Russ Squires. Co-producers, Grant Kahler, Tim Tracy. Co-executive producers, Lori Cheatle, Doug Block, Allan Webb. Directed by Aengus James.
  • Crew: Camera (color, DV), James, Stu Silverman, Chris Bradley, Jennifer Silbert; editors, Kate Amend, Grant Kahler; music, Adam Sanborne; sound, Brandon Davis, Doug Kochenback, Ward Lauer. Reviewed on DVD, Houston, Aug. 18, 2009. Running time: 85 MIN.
  • With: <b>With:</b> Greg Clancy, Gary Lewis, Jeff Oxley, Tony DeRosa, Patrick Claypool, Sean Devine, Cory Hunt, Shawn York, Joseph Hunter Jr., Mark Paul, Roger Payne, John Ward, "Awesome Joe" Connelly.