Admirably ambitious if awkwardly titled, “Barbershop Punk” advocates Internet neutrality by bringing together enough disparate voices to render the Tower of Babel a library reading room by comparison. In its busy style and general content, docu reps an up-to-the-minute companion piece to Canuck helmer Brett Gaylor’s 2009 copyright call-to-arms “RiP! A Remix Manifesto.” Yet the urgency of this complex and far-reaching issue, coupled with the undeniable appeal of the Everyman story that triggered the debate, will propel “Punk” to harmonious fest exposure and tenacious afterlife.
The concept behind Net neutrality, per helmers Georgia Sugimura Archer and Kristin Armfield, is an extension of the “common carriage” laws of the now seemingly ancient age of telephony and snail mail; that is, no delivery service could legally open, refuse to deliver or unfairly treat your correspondence or voice communication. With the Internet expanding at a dizzying rate, this philosophy has been trampled in favor of corporate control and, of course, profits.
Enter Robb Topolski, a barbershop-quartet baritone, software tester and self-described “social liberal, fiscal conservative, Republican Libertarian.” Not long ago, while attempting to upload vintage public-domain recordings for other enthusiasts to enjoy via peer-to-peer technology, Topolski noticed that his Internet provider, Comcast, was throttling this specific traffic. After some research, he published his findings, and in the time it takes to screech “Sweet Adeline,” Topolski, then battling late-stage colon cancer, became enmeshed in the media firestorm over who exactly should control the Internet — and who actually does.
Where punk enters the equation comes via soft-spoken hardcore legend Ian MacKaye, who opens the film by announcing that ethos “questions conventional thinking.” Pic proceeds to conflate the very different spirits of these two musical genres, seemingly as a way to, if not rationalize, then at least to accommodate such disparate talking heads as Henry Rollins and former Clinton White House press secretary Mike McCurry. Most articulate is OK Go frontman Damian Kulash (a Washington native and MacKaye admirer), who’s used innovative music marketing methods to become a spokesperson for tech and freedom issues.
Concept is an awkward fit, but fortunately for the helmers, Topolski and his story are so engaging that the resulting discord of voices and agendas can’t drown out the voice of the little guy questioning the system.
While overly and perhaps unnecessarily busy, tech package is pro. Overriding visual concept seems inspired by opening credits of “The Outer Limits,” further distracting from the issues at hand (McCurry even refers to the cherished TV program at one point). Pic is dedicated by the helmers to “our mothers, who taught us to stand.”