Christopher Guest seems to have found a formula for his movies. The writer/director/star makes mock documentaries about pseudo-showbiz topics, which he casts with a troupe of regular improvisational players. The format of his films - Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and now A Mighty Wind - involves an hour of screen time devoted to meeting a collection of offbeat characters and watching them prepare for some kind of show, while the final half hour is the show itself. Guest helped pioneer the “mockumentary” format with the classic This is Spinal Tap, which he co-wrote and starred in. Years later, he’s essentially doing the same thing, but at least it still works. A Mighty Wind may not seem new or groundbreaking, but it is certainly funny.
The subject this time around is folk music. At the start of the film, we learn that a famous folk music promoter has died, and his son (Bob Balaban) is planning a benefit concert in his honor. The idea is to get some of his father’s biggest acts together on one stage. He approaches The Folksmen (Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer – who were also Spinal Tap). In their heyday, the group was extremely popular; by the end of their career, they recorded for a label so cheap that it didn’t even punch a hole in the center of the album. These three middle-aged musicians haven’t seen each other in a long time, but they pick up where right where they left off. They are slightly pudgier than they used to be, and with a little less hair. Their hippie idealism, however, is still intact. Aside from a few passing modern-day references, the trio doesn’t seem to realize the 60’s are over.
The second act is the New Main Street Singers, an annoyingly peppy, Up With People-kind of group. Many of them are younger and have replaced existing members via a revolving door policy. Some of the old timers greet them with indignation, as though they are merely pretenders to the throne. The two members we meet most fully are Terry and Laurie Bohner (John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch). Although they appear wholesome on the surface, Laurie hints at a background in porn movies, and both of them practice a weird type of religion where color is the deity. (“It’s not like astrology or Scientology, which is a bunch of hooey,” Terry explains.)
The biggest – and most difficult act – to get is Mitch and Mickey. The members of this duo were famous folk lovebirds back in the day. Their trademark song – “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” - featured a moment when Mitch (Eugene Levy) stopped mid-song to plant a kiss on Mickey (Catherine O’Hara). Audiences swooned. They fell in love, got married, then got divorced. Mitch recorded a series of pessimistic music that went nowhere before he faded into oblivion – and a deep depression. Mickey got re-married to a model train enthusiast. Initially, Mitch wants nothing to do with the reunion; he’s eventually talked into it and finds himself becoming re-attracted to his ex-wife. The question is: will he kiss her, for old time’s sake, at the benefit show?
A Mighty Wind bounces us back and forth between these characters and several others. All of them are eccentric; some are downright weird. As the concert looms near, we realize there is a larger stake for each musical act than there initially appears. For The Folksmen, it’s a return to the limelight from a place of oblivion. For the New Main Street Singers, it’s a chance at legitimacy. For Mitch and Mickey, it’s the possibility of rekindled romance. There are also some behind-the-scenes moments showing the absurdity of getting a folk concert on the air in a time when folk music is not hip. (It’s a running joke that many of the people helping put the show together do not actually like folk music.)
Despite its popularity, I wasn’t wild about Best in Show. My problem was that the film seemed to be too condescending to its own characters. Like the ones in this film, they were all very quirky people. The movie’s humor felt almost cruel, like it was ridiculing them for their quirkiness. Because of that approach, I found it hard to care about anyone on screen. The characters in A Mighty Wind are treated more lovingly. Yes, laughs are mined from their eccentricities (especially in the case of Terry and Laurie Bohner), but there’s a more gentle feel to the story as well. You can really see this in the scenes involving Mitch and Mickey, which are undeniably sweet. Although Mitch’s depression (and subsequent burnout) is played for laughs, there’s real emotion in the way the story approaches his reunion with Mickey. Perhaps Guest and company felt it was taking too cheap a shot to ridicule peace-loving folk musicians, or perhaps the genial nature of the topic just didn’t allow for too much cruelty. Either way, the humor here is sharply satiric without being mean.
I also liked the way the film parodies folk music. Whether you like this style or not, you have to admit that a lot of it was kind of naïve in its view of the world. The lyrics – with their hippy-dippy utopian ideals – were often square. A Mighty Wind has about a dozen folk music recreations, all written and performed by the cast. My favorite is one by the Folksmen called “Eat at Joe’s” which is all about a down-home diner where everyone’s your pal; the chorus involves the singer reading the neon sign, and since some of the letters are burned out, he sings it like “ea’ a’ ‘oes.” Because the songs capture (and needle) real folk music so succinctly, they really add something important to the movie’s comedy.
I liked A Mighty Wind quite a bit, especially the performance by the great Eugene Levy, who is really hilarious. The movie manages to be satiric and affectionate at the same time, and there are some big laughs to be had. That said, it might be time for Christopher Guest to try something new. The mockumentary formula has been done, and done well. It’s time to take this great ensemble of comic actors and come up with the next big thing instead of merely repeating a proven formula.
( out of four)
A Mighty Wind is rated PG-13 for sex-related dialogue. The running time is 1 hour and 29 minutes.
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