If you'd told me on the basis of This Is Spinal Tap that Christopher Guest and cohorts would be able to get so much mileage out of the mockumentary, I wouldn't have believed you. But three more faux docs later, and writer/director Guest has miraculously pulled stuff from this seemingly one-joke format that I wouldn't have thought possible. The latest result, A Mighty Wind, is one of the solidest movie comedies in years.
As with Guest's other mock docs (Waiting For Guffman, Best In Show,) Wind tells the offstage stories of a group of hapless performers readying for the Big Show. In this case, it's a folk music tribute ("Ode To Irving") to Irving Steinbloom, the late manager to a trio of pop folkies whose last fleeting success came in the mid-sixties. Steinbloom's son (Bob Balaban), a man so stuntedly reared that his mother wouldn't let him play in Chess Club without a helmet, cajoles and wheedles a reunion concert out of the Folksmen, New Main Street Singers and legendary folk duo Mitch & Mickey. The bulk of the film follows the neurotic leads of each group as they anxiously prepare for their return to the spotlight; the show, we learn, is even going to be broadcast live on public television.
Each set of performers exemplifies a familiar type of sixties folkie: the Folksmen (Guest, Michael McKean & Harry Shearer) are a jauntily clueless version of the Kingston Trio; New Main Street Singers are inoffensive wholesome hootenanny-ites like the New Christy Minstrels, while Mitch & Mickey (Eugene Levy, who co-wrote the frame for the largely improvised film with Guest, and Catharine O'Hara) are meant to parallel boy/girl partnerings like Richard & Mimi Farina. Of the three, the most charged and comically poignant are Levy & O'Hara's characters: their relationship went south almost immediately after their one folk hit, "A Kiss At The End Of The Rainbow," broke on the charts. While Mickey rebounded and married, Mitch suffered a breakdown and has since been yo-yoing in and out of institutions. Gazing into the camera with Levy's patented gobsmacked off-kilter eyes, Mickey speaks in the frayed tones of someone who's spent most of his lifetime on psychotropic meds. Whether he'll be able to hold it together long enough to make it onstage is one of the flick's big questions.
Wind climaxes with the tribute concert and - unlike the agonizingly awful original play put on by Guffman's community theater types - it's a genuinely enjoyable show. Guest and friends clearly have a feel for this music (Main Street Singer lead, John Michael Higgins, does some canny arranging for the mass singalongs), which as written is satiric without being sneering. Mitch & Mickey's love song is pretty, while the Folksmen's repertoire really sounds like it could've come off an album by, oh, the Rooftop Singers.
Some movie critics have used the film's release as an excuse to air their disdain for what Martin Mull called the Great Folk Scare Of The Sixties. (Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly: "The movie is a folkie parody for anyone who, like me, finds the wholesome, tinkly, white-bread vibe of most folk music insipid beyond words. . .") But, actually, that charge betrays a pretty limited view of the era's music. A Mighty Wind's troubadours are exemplars of a poppified folk that record companies in the sixties tried promoting in hopes of supplanting that nasty ol' rock 'n' roll. It was calculatedly homogenous and studio sweetened in ways "purer" folkies initially shunned - as close to folk as Gary Lewis & The Playboys were to the British Invasion.
Too, far from being purely "white-bread," the sixties folk boom also helped birth the blues revival - as folk labels such as Vanguard ventured into Chicago to record and acoustic soloists like Lightnin' Hopkins found an audience in collegiate coffeehouses. There's also no parallel in the movie for either the protest singer a la Baez and Ochs or the Dylanesque wordsmith (though Mickey, in his pre-breakdown solo albums, seems to be venturing into Leonard Cohen depresso territory). The folk tones of Wind are all deliberately Safe, Sane and Sanitized.
But they're also fun to hear, especially if you (like me, as opposed to Gleiberman) have fond childhood memories of viewing network folk packagings like Hootenanny or of hearing Peter, Paul & Mary's prettified "Blowin' In The Wind" on Top Forty. (One of the best final gags in the film revolves around the Folksmen becoming a warped PP&M.) And when the whole cast blows through a group finale singalong of the title anthem, it's hard not be clap along - even as you knowingly snicker at the lyrics. . .