Let’s face it. Christopher Guest is obsessed with obsessive people. In “Waiting for Guffman,” the obsession was small town community theatre. In “Best in Show,” the obsession was dogs and their owners. Now, Guests and Co. take a searing jab at folk music.
I know what you’re thinking… Folk music? Why the heck would I want to go see a movie about folk music? Don’t worry. Folk music is just a conduit for insanity. Case in point, what other movie is out there that features an autoharp on its soundtrack? Yeah, an autoharp! You remember those things from 4th grade music class, don’t you?
“A Mighty Wind” opens with a news story about the death of folk music icon Irving Steinbloom. Steinbloom’s son Jonathan (Bob Balaban) is organizing a memorial concert featuring three of his father’s most notable bands – The Folksmen (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer), The Main Street Singers (led by John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch) and Mitch & Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara). Told in documentary style, “A Mighty Wind” follows the conflicts, challenges and quirkiness of these fake music legends.
As the plot unfolds towards the concert (cleverly billed as “Together again for the first time”), I worried that “A Mighty Wind” would fall prey to the same problem that I had with “Waiting for Guffman.” “Guffman” culminated in an all-too-real community theatre performance complete with mediocre music, overacting and choreography with steps no more complicated than a jazz square. Although executed flawlessly, the third act of “Guffman” was too much like a crappy community theatre musical. (And I’ve had to sit through much more than my fair share of crappy community theatre musicals let me tell you.)
“A Mighty Wind” starts down a similar path. However, Guest does an incredible job weaving a story, conflict and action into the backstage of the concert. The accompanying folk music is used more as a background soundtrack than the focus piece. (One of the best in-jokes of the whole film is The Folksmen is actually the hard rock band Spinal Tap. In fact, Guest, McKean and Shearer once opened a Spinal Tap concert as The Folksmen and were booed off stage.)
Although I spent my formative years in the 1980s, the era of 1960s folk music was not lost on me. My mother had a solid record collection – from Peter, Paul & Mary to a folk album from The 4 Seasons of all people – and I developed an appreciation for the music of the flower generation. While much of my exposure to folk music was seen in album covers, books and PBS documentaries, the humor of “A Mighty Wind” is not lost on me. Of course, if you’ve never heard the original recording of “Puff the Magic Dragon” or “Blowing in the Wind,” a lot of the subtleties of “A Mighty Wind” may just blow right over your head.
“A Mighty Wind” harkens back to a time when albums were recorded on non-compact vinyl discs that had to be placed on an ancient invention called a turntable. If you remember this device (and the associated albums) you should get a kick out of the ultra-realistic fake covers for the has been folk artists. In the days of vinyl, album covers were larger than most framed pictures. They had a different aesthetic than today’s CDs, and the photography from the 1960s that appeared on those covers was unique amongst itself. “A Mighty Wind” does a mighty job recreating this pretentious, yet heartwarming mood of these covers.
But the real charm of “A Mighty Wind” comes from the zany characters, and specifically, the actors behind them. Like “Waiting for Guffman” and “Best in Show,” the characters in “A Mighty Wind” are annoying, petty, pathetic, neurotic… and downright charming. There’s a love behind each one of them bestowed by this incredible cast. Most of the actors from Guest’s previous two mockumentaries return – some in lead roles, and others in bit parts. However, not only is the main cast hilarious, but the supporting characters (including brilliant performances by Michael Hitchcock, Jennifer Coolidge and Fred Willard) that are only in a few scenes are also hysterical.
There are no sacred cows in “A Mighty Wind.” Even beloved public television is skewered by Guest and Co. In a lot of ways, this movie pokes the most fun at the average PBS liberal who refuses to let go of the 1960s.