At the beginning of Barbershop Punk, Georgia Sugimura Archer and Kristen Armfield’s impotent exploration of the fight to take the Internet out of the hands of the Man, celebrity activist Janeane Garofalo nails it when she alludes to something third-world countries figured out a long time ago: Basic human rights like freedom of thought or speech will always take a backseat to the need for food and shelter. When most folks in America are busy struggling just to survive, getting up in arms about such eye-glazing issues as the application of common carriage laws and net neutrality becomes a bourgeoisie luxury.
The documentary’s catchy title refers to Robb Topolski, a software engineer and barbershop quartet member who noticed that Comcast was congesting traffic on his peer-to-peer network, then posted the proof of his discovery online, creating an accidental brouhaha. By mixing interviews with tired punk pundits like Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins with buttoned-down commissioners and congressmen gravely dispensing sound bites, Archer and Armfield clumsily attempt to turn Topolski’s un-cinematic journey into an everyman-versus-the-system thriller. (As for Topolski’s “everyman” designation—personally, I don’t know any former servicemen tech geeks with libertarian leanings sharing their passion for 19th-century tunes across the Web.) Unfortunately, what results is a feature-length, window-dressed PSA.
Add in an overly dramatic soundtrack and Barbershop Punk begins to take on a trying-too-hard poseur feel. Topolski’s mother recounts the big day when her son underwent life-saving surgery as his Comcast story broke in the New York Times. Cut to Internet news clips. Topolski gets upset that a Spanish-speaking woman at a hearing is cut off mid-presentation since her 90-second limit has been halved already by her use of an interpreter. An exasperated and clueless, rather than evil, talking head proclaims that free-speech laws were created to protect people from the government—and not from the broadcast companies! (Yes, as if major corporations aren’t in cahoots with Congress.) “Let’s let business make this decision,” a Republican congresswoman primly states before the filmmakers cut to a shot of a shelf with the Holy Bible on it.
But oddly, these cheesy moments are preferable to the plethora of images of people talking at their desks in front of computers, and the mind-numbing footage from FCC hearings. That government is big business and that the media is owned by a handful of corporations is all yesterday’s news. Except maybe to MacKaye, who still seems outraged recalling the time someone told him that corporations cannot be unethical since “a corporation’s not a human being.” (Actually, Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott’s The Corporation addressed the more fascinating issue of the human rights of corporate entities nearly a decade ago.) As dated and boring as former Black Flag frontman Rollins’s endless bitching, Barbershop Punk may not stir a grassroots action, but, ironically, it does serve as a strong call to create a better filter.