We're not sure there's been a figure in the history of television quite like Dan Harmon. The "Community" creator has, over the past few years, become one of the bigger celebrity showrunners, a writer as well-known as any of his creations, and whose fiiter-free, headline-grabbing antics, and rise-and-fall-and-rise again narrative, have seen him become, if not a household name, then a serious cult figure.
Neil Berkeley's documentary "Harmontown," which screened at the SXSW Festival this past week, is an investigation into that cult, and the man who leads it. The film follows the national tour that the writer took his "Harmontown" podcast on the road with in early 2013, six months or so after he was fired from "Community" after the end of the third series. The podcast, for the uninitiated is a rambling, chaotic, mostly unprepared couple of hours that features Harmon, actor/comic Jeff B. Davis, Harmon's girlfriend Erin McGathy, and these days, Spencer Crittenden, a fan who was picked out of the audience to play "Dungeons & Dragons" on the show, and now serves as dungeon master for a game at the end of every show.
The film essentially takes the form of a concert/tour movie: after a brief intro explaining Harmon and his crew for those unfamiliar with them, it heads out on the Harmontown tour bus, as they play a series of dates with guests including Patton Oswalt and Jason Sudeikis, while talking heads from Harmon's collaborators (including most of the cast of "Community," former writing partner Rob Schrab, and Sarah Silverman, with whom he co-created "The Sarah Silverman Program" before they had a catastrophic falling out) illuminate the main man's back story.
As a concert movie, it's not particularly memorable. There are some fun extracts from the show, but nothing particularly glorious -- the cliquey, in-jokey appeal is the main reason for its success, and the footage will undoubtedly be a boon to fans, but the snippets we see aren't likely to win over more listeners to the podcast.
But as a portrait of a legitimately fascinating unlikely superstar, the film really works. Though Harmon himself is an executive producer, it never seems especially self-serving, which is no surprise to anyone aware of Harmon's online presence -- he's a sort of clown prince of self-loathing self-destruction, taking the work as seriously as possible (he talks, half-jokingly, of being "a vessel for God" at one point), but never missing a chance to beat himself up in the process.
And this is where the film finds its substance, in its depiction of Harmon as a hugely smart, hugely funny man with a tendency to give in to his own demons. His collaborators, most notably Silverman (who says, tellingly, that she’s Harmon’s biggest fan, and still fired him) don’t sugarcoat his failings, and the film is at its most effective when examining, in the context of a fight between Harmon and then-girlfriend-now-fiancee McGathy (evidently the best thing that’s ever happened to him), his less cuddly side.
That it doesn’t sugarcoat this makes the film’s ultimate message all the more satisfying. Harmon, as “Community” watchers have probably realized, is a man who loves almost everybody except himself (and maybe some network executives...), and constantly seems to be working towards self-improvement while acknowledging that it isn’t easy. But in the process, in part thanks to his absolute, savage transparency about himself, he’s become a sort of figurehead for those like him -- people who may struggle socially, who are depressed or drink too much or just feel that they don’t fit in.
And in the closing stages, as the film shifts its focus from Harmon to the fans turning out in the hundreds every night, and particularly on first-among-fans Spencer, it becomes legitimately moving. Seeing Spencer flourish on stage, trading quips with comedy pros, is sweet even as he expresses misgivings about his time on the road. And as he returns home, aware that a better life is possible for someone like him, a lump may well surface in the throat.
“Harmontown,” the movie (which is, incidentally, very well shot, and mostly well cut, though it slacks a little in the first act -- it could probably stand to lose ten minutes or so) is really about how a flawed, brilliant individual can provide hope to the misfits of the world (“Reaching out to the people who aren’t used to being reached out,” as someone describes it at one point). And so while the film will undoubtedly work best for those who worship at the altar of Harmon and “Community,” it has something to say about fandom, and just people, in general, so the uninitiated shouldn’t shy away entirely. [B]