Within seconds after sitting down to watch "Harmontown," you will notice that the doc is brought to you by "Starburns Industries." For those in the know, the production company is paying homage to one of the bit characters played by Dino Stamatopoulos on the TV show "Community." Those who watch the show will get a lot out of "Harmontown," and there may just be something for everyone else.
Dan Harmon is the comedic genius behind programs like "The Sarah Silverman Show," and the cult pilot one-off "Heat Vision and Jack," but his baby is "Community." The NBC art-sitcom experiment has been a massive underground hit, rewarding endless fanboys and girls with rapid-fire cultural references, endearing nerdy characters and non-stop punchy one-liners. The show is by no means a ratings-getter, and every new season is borne out of a turbulent gestation. Harmon's perfectionist work ethic towards the production and casting of the program -- and his seeming unwillingness to be flexible with the writing -- has made him a character in his own right.
This documentary begins just as Harmon has been fired from his own show and publicly chastised as a fat drunk by "Community" cast member, Chevy Chase. Not unlike the out-of-work Conan O'Brien after his "Tonight Show" demise, Harmon used this forced down time as an opportunity to try something else.
Not unlike "Community," Harmon's podcast "Harmontown" is not for everyone. It's a weekly nerdgasm that mainly features Harmon and his pals acting silly onstage, and goofing off with big names like Eric Idle, Greg Proops and Jason Sudekis. With the podcast established and a film crew at the ready, "Harmontown" went on the road, and the results are mixed.
The film follows Harmon and his crew during the winter of 2013 as the group gets on a tour bus to perform in front of a half dozen cities. The cast of characters on the "Harmontown" podcast includes girlfriend Erin McGathy, co-host Jeff B. Davis and live onstage dungeon master (don't ask) Spencer Crittenden. With a rough outline and a handful of features at the ready, Harmon rolls the dice that this will not only be a good idea for his podcast, but a good idea for a documentary.
The film does a great job of watching the evolution, stumbling blocks and pressures of each performance. Harmon and his team end up going with some pretty low-brow gags, songs and stories to get cheap laughs, but once he finds his groove, so does the audience, and so will you as a filmgoer.
Neil Berkeley is the director of "Harmontown." His recent doc, "Beauty is Embarrassing," was screened at Hot Docs 2012 to critical acclaim. [Ed. Note: We will have an interview with Neil Berkeley in the next week on Moviefone.] Berkeley uses filmmaking craft and the access he has to Harmon's erratic behaviour to turn what could be self-serving propaganda into something watchable.
Watching "Harmontown" is a bit like how some may have experienced "Community" over the years. It's pretty annoying at first, then very endearing and entertaining, and then a bit of overkill. Its Achilles' heel is that it's a love letter to a man that not that many people know about. If you aren't on the "Community" or "Harmontown" podcast bandwagon, it's pretty hard to sit quietly and watch Harmon drink too much in front a crowd and call it entertainment. What makes the film work is that somewhere in the muck of his career (and this doc) is a brilliant guy who has show business guts. If you give him a bit of time and attention on stage or screen, his comedic catharsis performance art can be pretty endearing.
For all the "Star Wars" and Atari video game worship in "Community," it is clear that Harmon is becoming a cultural reference himself. This documentary proves that he doesn't mind getting his hands dirty and taking risks with his pride. He's at the "Community" helm again, he's getting married, and if he can stay in a state of relative healthiness, it seems Dan Harmon will be making certain people laugh for many years to come.
Hot Docs runs from April 24 - May 4 at various venues in Toronto.
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema Fri., Apr. 25, 11:59 p.m.
Hart House Theatre Sun., Apr. 27, 3:15 p.m.
Burwash Quad Thurs., May 1, 9:00 p.m.