LAFF Review: HARMONTOWN

Brian dives into a loose but genuine Dan Harmon documentary.

It was in December of 2011 that I attended my first Harmontown, which was then monthly and not released in podcast form. Having no way to listen to a previous episode, I had no idea what to expect; my friend Jeremy had been to a few and did his best to explain it: "Dan just kind of talks... sometimes about Community, not usually though." As it happens, as a Community fan I lucked out with this one, as the show was almost ENTIRELY about my beloved show - he had two guests, one being adult film actress Dana DeArmond, discussing her experiences on shooting a Community porn parody that was so bad that it never got released. The other was Gillian Jacobs, who could be discussing lint and I'd be enraptured, but the topic happened to be Chevy Chase, with Ms. Jacobs becoming even more endearing to me by telling NICE stories about my childhood hero (with Dan likening him to raw sewage).

Apparently it was the first time that Chevy had been discussed in any detail, but not the last - a few months later, Harmon infamously played the actor's angry voicemail to the 50-60 fans in the crowd. One of those fans was unfortunately a giant idiot and made a recording of it, then uploaded it to the internet, and nothing good came of that. But it also made the show more popular, and not long after that is when it became weekly, and also available to download as a podcast. It was the success of the podcast form - and Harmon suddenly having more free time after being fired from Community - that resulted in a cross country "Harmoncountry" tour of the show, all captured by Neil Berkeley's cameras for a documentary simply titled Harmontown, which had its LA premiere last night courtesy of the Los Angeles Film Festival.

In a post-screening Q&A, Harmon revealed that he originally thought the documentary would be more of a comedy, a "funny stuff on the road" kind of thing, but while the movie is often hilarious, what Berkeley ended up with was something that's sort of like an episode of the podcast in feature film form. Harmon and his co-host Jeff B. Davis do not plan material; Harmon's Evernote app may have a few things he wanted to mention but that takes up MAYBE 20 minutes of the two hour show, if he has it at all. Many an episode has begun with him admitting he was drunk and/or tired and not having much to say, and the film follows suit - it starts off with Harmon (and girlfriend/now fiance Erin McGathy) waking up, yawning, playing with his cat, and tiredly getting into his car. Like the show itself, you will have no idea where it will go from there - it could be a documentary about this one guy, about the show he created, or maybe about the podcast that shares its name.

As it turns out, it's kind of about all three. While the movie will obviously be of most appeal to his fans, Berkeley is sure to give enough background for a total newcomer to understand what makes this guy interesting in the first place. The wealth of guest stars (everyone from Community*, Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Sarah Silverman) are on hand to discuss their various projects with him: Heat Vision & Jack, The Sarah Silverman Program, etc (Monster House is skipped), which not only paints a picture of his career output thus far but also his tendency to self-destruct and get overly defensive when working with other writers (as Silverman explains, she's his biggest fan but had to fire him). It was this sort of behavior that led to his firing from Community, which in turn led to the increased output for the podcast and subsequent tour. At one point Harmon explains that attempts at traditional therapy didn't work, but doing the podcast does - he is free to talk (and entertain, which is what drives him first and foremost) and know that the people listening still love and respect him after, no matter what he does on stage or what he talks about from his past (such as his dalliance with a Real Doll). The tour would be a way to see if he could make that sort of connection with new crowds in new cities, instead of the regular "Harmenians" that pay 10 bucks every week to sit in the back of Meltdown Comics and listen to him.

There's also another big element of the Harmontown experience: the Dungeons & Dragons adventure that closes out each show. Not long after it became weekly, Harmon had the idea to work an ongoing D&D adventure into the show, and asked the crowd if anyone happened to be a skilled Dungeon Master. Enter Spencer Crittenden (who Community fans will recognize as Anthony, Annie's strange brother), who was in the right place at the right time and has become not only a permanent fixture of the podcast, but a hero to its fans (the applause for his credit during the movie was far more thunderous than for the other three cast members). It's impossible not to love the guy, and Berkeley made the right call to focus on him almost as much as Harmon himself - one of the film's highlights is Spencer just taking in Times Square for what I assume was the first time, not bad for a guy who just happened to raise his hand one night. This has the unfortunate result of leaving Davis and McGathy in the background for large chunks of the film; as anyone who has seen/heard an episode will tell you that it's at its best when all four of them are on stage together, playing off each other (both of them are gifted improv comics, a skill the film never really shows off). Berkeley said that there's a lot of great footage that will hopefully surface on the eventual DVD - here's hoping that it gives these two equally entertaining performers their proper due.

Berkeley isn't a big fan of titles or anything; some stops on the tour are made clear (New York, Austin, Memphis) just from visual cues (Times Square!) or someone saying so, but otherwise they all kind of blend together - there's no "Day 15, Chicago" type stuff to clue you in as to where they are or how much of the tour is left. The success of the tour is also left a bit vague; at one point Erin and Spencer are seen handing out fliers due to that night's show being only a quarter full, but whether it was successful or not is never revealed. Maybe it was because I already heard the on-stage material and was more interested in the behind the scenes stuff I DIDN'T get to hear on my iPod over a year ago, but if I had one complaint about the film it'd be that the tour it was ostensibly covering was presented in a hazy blur - it almost seemed like Berkeley could have made the same movie just from footage of the weekly Los Angeles show. There's a minor sub-plot of sorts concerning Harmon trying to finish his long overdue pilot scripts for FOX and CBS, but since we know the outcome (obviously neither got picked up since he got rehired at Community, though the FOX one has a funny punchline you might not know about) this stuff isn't exactly compelling, though it does offer a brief glimpse into his solo writing process. It also provides a sweet scene with him and Erin, who is helping him address the studio's notes - the scene comes shortly after the two had a fight, an uncomfortable point in the film which gives way to a lengthy, incredibly raw confessional from Harmon.

Ultimately, that "complaint" I had goes back to what I was saying about the movie being like an episode of the show. Harmon's tendency to go off on tangents (and tangents of tangents, and tangents of tangents of tangents...) can be as amusing as it is frustrating; more than once he was about to go into something juicy or intriguing, only to get focused on something else or interrupted by someone in the crowd, never to return to the original topic. The movie follows suit - it switches gears (gracefully so) and lets a few "sub-plots" go unresolved, and could have gone a million ways, but it doesn't really matter in the end - we're there for Harmon himself, hiding nothing from the cameras (or the paying crowds), simultaneously admitting his weaknesses and flaunting his narcissism ("It's hard to be a vessel for GOD!" he offers, ending a writing session after merely writing/deleting "Fade in"). As with any documentary, there could be the risk of seeing a tainted or biased POV thanks to careful editing, but based on what I know from attending the shows, it's as real as it gets. The movie manages to capture something that's indescribable (I've now been to at least 50 of the shows and I still have trouble describing it any better than my friend did); it might repulse those who have no affinity for the man, but to the rest, if nothing else, when it's over you'll sit back and say "Yep, that's Dan."

*Except for Chevy, which some will see as a "duh" point but the truth of the matter is that it looks like they got all the other Community actors during production of the Chevy-less fifth season, here in Los Angeles when the actor lives in New York. The movie does show Harmon's (unsuccessful) attempt to get him to join the podcast when they made their NY stop, however.
 

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