We’re not sure if 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, 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” investigates that cult, and the man who leads it. The film follows the writer taking his “Harmontown” podcast on tour in early 2013, six months or so after he was fired from “Community” at the conclusion of the show’s third season. For the uninitiated, the podcast is a rambling, chaotic, mostly improvised couple of hours that features Harmon, actor/comic Jeff B. Davis, Harmon’s girlfriend Erin McGathy, and Spencer Crittenden, a fan who was picked out of the audience during the tour to play “Dungeons & Dragons” onstage 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 introducing Harmon and his crew, the action moves onto the Harmontown tour bus, as they play a series of dates with guests including Patton Oswalt and Jason Sudeikis, while an assortment of 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 excerpts from the show, but nothing is particularly glorious —the cliquey, in-jokey appeal is the main reason for the tour’s success, and the footage will undoubtedly be a boon to fans, but the snippets we see are unlikely to win over more listeners to the podcast.
But as a portrait of a legitimately fascinating but unlikely superstar, the film succeeds. Though Harmon is an executive producer, the doc never seems especially self-serving, which is no surprise to anyone aware of Harmon’s online presence— he’s a clown prince of self-loathing and self-destruction, taking the work as seriously as possible (he talks half-jokingly of being “a vessel for God” at one point) but never misses 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 but still fired him) do not sugarcoat his failings, and the film is at its most effective when examining his less cuddly side, such as scene depicting a fight between Harmon and then-girlfriend-now-fiancee McGathy.
That the doc doesn’t gloss over these flashes of darkness makes its 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, thanks to his absolute, savage transparency about himself, he’s become 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 hundreds of fans turning out 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, you may notice a lump in your throat.
“Harmontown” (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]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 SXSW Film Festival.