Barbershop Punk - SideReel Review

Barbershop Punk - SideReel Review

Robb Topolski hardly looks like a rabble-rousing activist for the Information Age. He’s a stocky, middle-aged guy with a neatly trimmed beard, a shy smile, and the natural enthusiasm of a self-described geek. After a hitch in the military and more than a dozen years as a police officer, he landed a job in the tech field as a software engineer and tester, and he could easily pass for the guy from the IT department who can tell you why your e-mail isn’t working or why your browser always crashes. However, he’s also the man who unwittingly kicked off a fierce and ongoing debate over the nature of freedom on the Internet, in large part (and in truly geeky fashion) because he loves barbershop-quartet music.

Filmmakers Georgia Sugimura Archer and Kristin Armfield have used Topolski’s story as the cornerstone for a documentary on Internet freedom, Barbershop Punk. The movie isn’t really about Topolski, but his story gives it a center as the directors offer a lively, fact-filled look into the net-neutrality movement, its implications, and how one guy with a little curiosity and know-how discovered a major corporation was sticking its nose in a place where many believe it doesn’t belong.

Topolski sings baritone in a barbershop quartet in his spare time, and he collects rare, turn-of-the-century recordings of vintage barbershop-style harmonies. Hoping to share his interests with others, in 2007 Topolski converted some of his favorite recordings into MP3 files and attempted to post them on a peer-to-peer file-sharing website. However, he found that whenever he tried to post his files, his Internet connection would either slow down dramatically or simply fail. Both frustrated and curious, Topolski used software to test his connection and made the unexpected discovery that his Internet service provider, Comcast, was deliberately slowing down or stopping traffic to certain peer-to-peer websites. Topolski wrote an article on his findings, posted it online, and didn’t think much more of it until others became curious about his results. At first, Topolski had other things to worry about when his story began to break big in the national press -- the day the Associated Press first published a piece on his research, he was having surgery for colon cancer -- but it wasn’t long before he became a recurring figure in court cases and FFC hearings, questioning just how much control your ISP should have over what you want to send and what you want to see.

Curiously, a large part of the debate over who regulates the Internet is inspired by technology, as online traffic moves from telephone lines to cable and DSL carriers. When dial-up was the rule of the day, most authorities believed that Internet information should be treated under the "common carrier" codes regarding telephone communication, which upheld that phone calls were private communication just like sealed packages and the phone company had no business and no right looking in. However, now that other communication firms have moved into the picture, many of them are fighting laws that protect net neutrality, in part because they insist it is in the public interest to restrict some kinds of content, but also because they want to be able to monetize web services without the interference of an outside authority. To a large extent, this has turned the debate into one between large companies eager to stave off regulation and activists who insist that many firms will use their power to scuttle information they don’t like, as in the case of an AT&T webcast of the Lollapalooza rock festival that suddenly went silent when Pearl Jam began performing a song critical of then-president George W. Bush. As Barbershop Punk shows, the advocates of freedom make for some strange bedfellows, as representatives of the Christian Coalition and the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws stand together to defend free transmission of politically oriented text messages and Internet content.

Although net neutrality is a concept that encompasses a surprisingly complex variety of issues for both the public and private sectors, Barbershop Punk directors Georgia Sugimura Archer and Kristin Armfield cover a lot of ground in less than 80 minutes, while also leaving room for Topolski’s story as a public activist and private family man. The filmmakers leave no doubt as to where they stand in the net-neutrality debate, but they allow all sides to have their time on the soapbox, and director of photography Amy Sharp has given the film a striking visual style that uses outside images to help tell the story in a clever and exciting way. The filmmakers have also brought in a wide range of figures to share their thoughts on the subject, from legislators, lobbyists, and FFC officials, to radio commentator Jim Ladd, actress Janeane Garofalo, songwriter John Perry Barlow, and musicians Damian Kulash (of the band OK Go) and Ian MacKaye; together they bring a sense of lively and intelligent discussion to the project.

It’s MacKaye, a member of the groups Minor Threat, Fugazi, and the Evens, as well as the founder of Dischord Records, who ultimately gives Barbershop Punk its name. As MacKaye says in the film’s first few minutes, "As long as there’s been a mainstream, there’s been a counterculture. And that’s what I’ve been looking for all my life. I kept looking around, like ‘Where’s the positive, creative, constructive world, the community that questions conventional thinking on every level? Where is this community?’ And for me, I found it in punk rock." What MacKaye found in punk, Robb Topolski found in questioning the authority of his ISP to keep him from posting public-domain recordings on the web, and if there’s a big gap between D.C. hardcore and four-part a cappella harmonies, by the movie’s end, MacKaye and Topolski seem to have a lot more in common than anyone would ever expect as they champion honesty and freedom for the masses.

-Mark Deming


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