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A Mighty Wind blows in surprising directions

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A Mighty Wind surprised me. I came into a movie associated with the creative team for Spinal Tap with certain satiric expectations, most of which were met.

A Mighty Wind tells the story of three long past their prime folk groups who have gotten together for a PBS special on the ocassion of the death of their old label president. The action centers on the many membered Main Street Singers, the less than popular Folksmen (the Spinal Tap reunion), and ex-husband and wife duo Mitch and Mickey.

They in particular put out considerably more than I would have expected. Eugene Levy (especially) and Catherine O’Hara [an underappreciated actress] inject a real dramatic poignancy as the ex-husband and wife folk singing team. They’re sort of Sonny and Cher, except with a Brian Wilson character instead of level-headed Sonny.

Their big hit was a hokey love song with an autoharp solo called “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow”. Their big career moment was performing this song on television long decades ago, complete with a little theatrical kiss written into the climax of the song. “There’s a kiss at the end of the rainbow worth more than any pot of gold.”

Yes, this is as cheesy as you might think, yet totally real and meaningful to them. This moment was the peak of their lives. Then their relationship and career come apart, and Mitch does time in a mental institution. The couple hasn’t spoken for decades.

Yet here they are pushed back together for a public performance. Mickey is still vulnerable, much less the basket case that is Mitch. He’s trying to hold on enough to just get through the performance, and keep it together.

At one point Mitch finds himself in a cheap hotel with the neighbors yet again banging the headboards, talking over the sound to the son of the old record guy. Paraphrasing, Mitch said at one point that his problem was that everyone was coming to see Mitch and Mickey, but that guy doesn’t exist anymore. Damn.

From this essay, you can see how the Mitch and Mickey story took over my imagination. Yet they are really no more screentime than the other acts in this ensemble cast, or the record guy’s family.

We’ve got a full and effective time for parody through the other groups. The (New) Main Street Singers are Up With People and Sing-Along with Mitch and some other cheese combined. Having nine members gives opportunity for that many little sub-stories, though obviously that short changes most of them. They are the most crass pop end of the “folk” movement.

The Folksmen only somewhat quietly resent the success of the Main Street Singers. They are the very bottom of the food chain. Their story about being demoted to a label that wouldn’t bother to put holes in the middle of their albums sounds funny perhaps when you see it, but maybe later the brutality of their humiliation and defeat will dawn.

Note the fragility of the constructs protecting the egos of the Folksmen. They turn up their noses at the crass commercialism of the Main Street Singers. Yet note the content of their one minor hit, “Old Joe’s Place”. It was the silliest, fluffiest pop song any folk act could have had. This comes from the band that justifies their commercial hardship as the cost of their integrity to hardcore folk values.

A number of critics, notably Roger Ebert, have actually faulted the movie for the legitimate dramatic pathos it generates. By this way of looking at it, the tender feelings of sympathy undercut the scythe blade of satire.

They may somewhat have a point. By the time Mitch and Mickey get onstage at the tribute to sing “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow”, the moment lacks any significant humor. Several other characters and situations pass into straight drama.

We’re getting way more back than what we’re giving up. It’s maybe two-thirds up to the Spinal Tap challenge as satire. However, Spinal Tap was merely very funny. It was a Saturday Night Live sketch in excelsis. A Mighty Wind is a real movie, with three dimensional characters with souls.

Spinal Tap has become a legend. It’s set a mark. I’m not sure if A Mighty Wind hits quite as high, but it has it’s own unique power as human comedy. It wouldn’t surprise me to see some people eventually picking it over the Tap. That’s obviously pretty high praise.

The balance of that decision may hang on the actual songs. I’m not sure yet if the Mighty Wind songs are the equal of classic Tap. I’ll have to live with them a bit to tell you, but I’d say they’re close. I find “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” genuinely touching. I very much enjoy the Mainstreet Singers “Good Book Song” and it’s chirpy advice on how to avoid the wrath of God. Then there are the Folksmen. Oy.

Besides the actual songs, they made great use of the idea of album covers for all these groups. I was well impressed with how much exposition and satire got accomplished simultaneously with but a handful of still images.

As we wind down to the end of this consideration, one thing did bug me. The very last scene, with the Harry Shearer character. That business was just plain stupid, and in this case I unfortunately do NOT mean “stupid fresh”. It was not set up in any way, and seems totally contrived in a way unlike anything else in the movie. They could have just left off the last three minutes. It wasn’t really funny, and it broke my suspension of disbelief. I’ve got to dock them a point for that.

Other than that, though, this film constitutes a high-water mark in quality for about everyone involved. Particularly, Eugene Levy’s portrayal of Mitch should be considered an early contender for an Oscar (as well as his work as screenwriter and songwriter). Catherine O’Hara might not be far behind. Lots of Oscar possibilities, especially among the songs.

All in all, if you think you even might be interested in this movie, then you certainly should. It’s quite good on a number of levels.

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  • “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” was nominated for an Oscar for best original song. It should have won, except that voters were determined to vote for absolutely anything connected to the Lord of the Frickin’ Rings.

    The Mitch and Mickey performance on the Oscars February 29, 2004, however, cemented my judgment that not only was it the best song in a movie, but in fact the record of the year. Levy did good with suggesting the character’s problems in just a few seconds of spaciness on the big show that framed the song quite nicely.

    Unlike the Grammys though, at least the Oscars had the sense to NOMINATE the right song.