Barbershop Punk -- Film Review

Solid documentary explores how sweetly harmonized barbershop music catalyzed a battle between First Amendment proponents and the telecommunications industry.

Net neutrality might not be the most alluring topic, but it should be of urgent importance to anyone who values the right to free speech. So argue most of the talking heads in “Barbershop Punk,” a thoughtful piece of advocacy journalism that screened recently in the Alt/Art section of AFI Fest.

First-time filmmakers Georgia Sugimura Archer and Kristin Armfieldoverdo the cinematic flourishes, though their material is strong enough to stand unadorned. At the heart of the matter is the deregulation and privatization of communication channels in the electronic age. The common carriage laws — which applied to oldfangled mail delivery and dial-up phone lines and specified that all messages must be delivered without discrimination — have been eroded, and it took an unlikely figure to offer proof against no less a behemoth than Comcast.

Robb Topolski, a middle-aged software engineer, Libertarian-leaning Republican and self-described geek who’s given to tears, discovered that his attempts to share vintage barbershop quartet recordings on peer-to-peer sites were meeting roadblocks. He ran some tests — the kind that only a software-literate geek would know how to do — and discovered that his Internet service provider, Comcast, was interfering with his uploads. Not long after he published the test results online. As he was in the midst of a health crisis, AP picked up the story, and First Amendment proponents brought their complaint to a sympathetic FCC.

Laying out the facts with clarity, Barbershop Punk shows how punk rockers, the Christian Coalition and abortion rights organizations have joined forces. The Internet, they argue, should not be an unregulated free market ruled by corporate interests that can limit users’ access. Archer and Armfield have corralled a wide-ranging group of interviewees: journalists, policymakers and performers including Henry Rollins, Janeane Garofalo and the especially articulate Damian Kulash, of the band OK Go, which famously bypassed record label machinery to put its videos straight on YouTube.

The filmmakers give time to opposing viewpoints, most of them presented with conviction, although Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn comes off like a tight-jawed caricature played by Kristen Wiig. The “punk” of the title refers to the ethos of a supportive community of unconventional thinkers. It’s not an entirely organic connection, but the concept fits, and finds expression in the film’s raw, straight-ahead look. The directors get carried away with a music score and repetitive interstitial images that do nothing to heighten the proceedings.

As the entertainment industry focuses on piracy, “Barbershop Punk” helps to clarify the distinction between copyright protection in the digital marketplace and Internet access. It furthers a momentous policy debate. After an appeals court ruling that denied the FCC authority over broadband providers, that debate is still raging.

Production companies: A This End Up Films, Monku Power production in association with Evil Twin Prods.
Directors/producers: Georgia Sugimura Archer, Kristin Armfield
Screenwriter: Georgia Sugimura Archer
Executive producer: Anthony Dominici
Director of photography: Amy Sharp
Music: Peter Golub
Co-producer: Matt Kregor
Editors: Matt Kregor, Jose Pulido
No rating, 76 minutes