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    A Mighty Wind

    Gusters' last stand

    "A Mighty Wind" is not quite the hilarious music-mockumentary sendup that you might expect from the "Spinal Tap" / "SCTV" crew — its depiction of aging folkies is more earnest and, truth be told, closer to reality than farce.


    Amid all the hoopla surrounding this latest reunion of the cast of "This Is Spinal Tap," does anyone remember who directed that classic film? It was Rob Reiner, but his star has long since been outshone by Tap member and fellow Norman Lear sitcom alumnus Christopher Guest, who has elevated the mockumentary to genre status with "Waiting for Guffman" and "Best in Show."

    Directed by: Christopher Guest.
    Written by: Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy.
    Cast: Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Bob Balaban, Catherine O'Hara, Ed Begley Jr., Parker Posey, Laura Harris, Linda Kash, Jim Piddock, Larry Miller, Christopher Moynihan, Jane Lynch, John Michael Higgins, Michael Hitchcock, Don Lake, Deborah Theaker, Michael Mantell.

    Related links: Official site
    Actually, unlike "Tap," "A Mighty Wind" is really a mockumentary only in the sense that it uses certain documentary conventions like talking-heads interviews. In other ways, it allows the cast to get slightly closer to their roles than they could in a more straightforward mockumentary like "Spinal Tap." Aside from the interviews, the characters never acknowledge the camera; there's no narrator; and there's no effort to explain how the camera manages to capture the characters in intimate moments. All this gives "A Mighty Wind" something of a fairy-tale aspect, which is appropriate, in that it's attempting to capture a streamlined and candycoated musical genre.

    A Mighty Wind  
    That genre is early-1960s folk music — not the Bob Dylan variety, but the kind that the parents of most American teenagers of the era were only too happy to allow their kids to enjoy in place of rock and roll. Acts like the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul & Mary, and the New Christy Minstrels rarely grace even the oldies airwaves today, but, in the early '60s, they sold millions upon millions of albums and singles.

    Pop-culture historians like to point to the commercial-folk era as an example of the minstrel-show phenomenon of mainstream music moguls sanitizing an underground craze. Even so, there's no doubt that many great musicians bought their first Martin guitar after hearing the Kingston Trio. Likewise, countless female singers were inspired by Mary Travers, who, for all her mainstream popularity, could belt out a tune with the best of them — just watch her remarkably androgynous and sexy performance in Murray Lerner's "Festival" if you don't believe me.

    Now, I admit to entering "A Mighty Wind" with a pro-folk bias — my mother dated a New Christy Minstrel before she met my dad, so it's in my blood. So I was pleased to find that not only do Christopher Guest and his cast reproduce the sound of commercial folk authentically (just as they did with the 1960s numbers in "Spinal Tap"), but they treat the genre in general as a guilty pleasure. The fictitious artists' music suffers, if anything, from being more memorable than the real thing. After my moviemate and I left the theater, we both found ourselves unable to get the Folksmen's infectious "Eat at Joe's" out of our heads.

    I haven't mentioned the film's plot yet, mainly because there isn't much to speak of. Written by Guest with longtime collaborator Eugene Levy of "SCTV," it's essentially an extended "SCTV" sketch about three commercial-folk acts — the Folksmen, the New Main Street Singers, and Mitch & Mickey — who reunite for a one-off concert at New York City's Town Hall. The film follows the acts from their initial reunions (save for the ultra-polished nine-piece New Main Street Singers, who are still performing, albeit with a single original member) through their rehearsals and, finally, the drama of putting on the Town Hall show.

      A Mighty Wind
    Unlike "SCTV," however, the script is not a laughfest. Rather, Guest and Levy flood the viewer with a succession of smile-inducing subtleties. The wry details in the mise-en-scene; the delightful performances from character actors like "Spinal Tap" veterans Fred Willard and Ed Begley Jr.; the multiple points where characters deliver Freudian slips and unintentional puns — these and other painstakingly crafted details combine to put one in an extended state of double-take. It's amusing, to be sure, but just barely worth the $10 New York City admission, unless one enjoys the musical details.

    As I've said, I do enjoy the musical details, from the New Main Street Singers' spot-on New Christy Minstrels parody to Christopher Guest and fellow Tapsters Michael McKean and Harry Shearer's good-natured Kingston Trio cop as the Folksmen. But the film's true stars — as well as its emotional center, if an all-out satire can be said to have one — are Eugene Levy and fellow "SCTV" alumnus Catherine O'Hara as Mitch & Mickey. Although they're most likely to be identified with the Canadian duo Ian & Sylvia, they actually bear an uncanny resemblance to the New York City duo Jim & Jean, from their old album covers (with raven-haired Mickey in the requisite black eyeliner) down to their music's hippy-dippy sentiments.

    Eugene Levy puts forth an inspired performance as Mitch, who has survived the '60s only with the help of heavy prescription medication. My moviemate thought his performance was over-the-top, but I've interviewed enough of the era's casualties to know that he was painfully on target. O'Hara's Mickey is healthier, but she can't help having compassion for her former love. I found myself quite affected by the depiction of their relationship, but, in all honesty, I doubt you will be. I mean, I get all tearful at the end of "A Charlie Brown Christmas." And, when it comes down to it, "A Mighty Wind" is essentially a very well-drawn cartoon.

    APRIL 21, 2003

    Reader comments on A Mighty Wind:

  • Mighty Good Endevor   from Steven B, Oct 28, 2003
  • Re: Mighty Good Endevor   from Barr, Nov 21, 2003
  • Gentle Humour   from Sylvie Bosher, Feb 25, 2004
  • A Mighty Wind   from Cris, Jul 23, 2004
  • A MIGHTY WIND   from DONNA B, Apr 8, 2005

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