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A Gentle Breeze

 

A Mighty Wind

Christopher Guest, USA, 2003

Rating: 3.8

 

 

Posted: April 27, 2003

By Kevin Forest Moreau

It's hard to figure out Christopher Guest's intention in making A Mighty Wind, a light, affable faux-documentary about a reunion concert of aging 1960s folk music acts. Sure, the director's overriding goal is the same one exhibited in his similar efforts, Waiting for Guffman and the caustic Best in Show: to make us laugh. But whereas those earlier films were unsparing in their exposure of the humorously clueless, self-involved characters that peopled their worlds (community theater and dog shows, respectively), A Mighty Wind invites us to laugh with its characters, rather than at them.

This is largely a result of Guest's approach to his chosen milieu. No one doubts that the folk-rock boom of the 1960s contained its fair share of pompous artistes and inflated egos. But the three acts Guest focuses on -- the affably stuffy Folksmen, the aggressively perky New Main Street Singers, and most especially the delicate duo of former lovers Mitch and Mickey -- are presented with a gentle hand that verges on affection and warmth. We're not given any analogs of real-world folk icons: no over-earnest Joan Baezes, no incestuous, drug-addled and out-of-control Mamas and Papas -- especially no Mama Cass. No larger-than-life, humility-deficient buffoons with outsized appetites for destruction. And most egregiously, no Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie; no rabble-rousing firebrand with a strident political agenda of the kind most of us automatically associate with the words "folk music."

Instead, we're given three fictional lights of folk's heyday with little built-in lampoonability. Guest and his gifted troupe of improvisational actors -- perhaps the strongest such group working in film -- do find subtle nuggets of humor in their characters' personas, as when Folksman Mark Shubb (Harry Shearer) discusses the effects of his skin-care routine with a fusty fervor clearly intended as the aging musician's equivalent to yoga, tantric sex or hard drugs. Bald, bearded Shubb recalls the callow, hairspray-addicted metal musicians of Penelope Spheeris' classic 1988 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization 2: The Metal Years, and it's worth a knowing chuckle -- emphasis on the "knowing." There are all too many such brief, under-the-radar titters in Wind, and they're a far cry from the self-righteous buffoonery of the characters in Show -- or, more pointedly, Wind's most obvious forebear, Rob Reiner's exalted This is Spinal Tap.

Not that A Mighty Wind doesn't give us anyone to laugh at; we are. But the laughs we're afforded at their expense are scarce. Fred Willard, whose clueless commentator was one of Best in Show's highlights, treads all-too-familiar ground as the New Main Street Singers' manager, Mike LaFontaine, a former failed sitcom star who can't let go of the catch phrase ("Wha' Happened?!") he never quite made a household word. LaFontaine's brash, abrasively ignorant bon mots (ridiculing the deputy mayor of New York by asking where the "real mayor" is; tastelessly recounting the dysentery that racked a cruise ship on which he'd booked the Singers) score minor hits, but Willard isn't given enough to work with, and it shows. Likewise, Larry Miller and Jennifer Coolidge underwhelm as slimy PR flacks, and Ed Begley, Jr. strains to make the most of his public television executive, a Swedish Jew who peppers his speech with Borscht Belt Yiddish. Worse, all of these characters are marginal players and too-easy targets, and the laughs they generate are a poor substitute for the skewering of familiar folk archetypes that never materializes.

Since the film lacks a wealth of primary characters the audience wants to see receive their come-uppance, we're given only the barest scaffolding of a plot on which to hang our interest. To commemorate his departed father, former folk impresario Irving Steinbloom, unctuous Jonathan Steinbloom (Bob Balaban, in quintessential anal-retentive, fussbudget form) hastily organizes a tribute concert featuring his father's well-known acts. The Folksmen -- singer/guitarist Jerry Palter (Michael McKean), slightly addled banjo picker Alan Barrows (Guest) and Shearer's schlubby Shubb -- enjoy a low-key reacquaintance at a backyard barbecue and proceed to reminisce about their early days on the prestigious Folktown label -- as well as a hilarious aside about their later years on the lesser subsidiary Folktone, which had "no distribution" and released the group's vinyl albums without holes. We're introduced to the New Main Street Singers, a nine-piece "neuftet" carrying on in the tradition of the original Main Street Singers; the group features only one surviving member of the original incarnation, and is populated by a group of sweater-clad Stepford types whose surface banality masks the unsavory backgrounds (street life, porn films) of some of its members, as well as a rigid military-style sense of discipline and adherence to a bizarre, New Age-y religion that worships the vibratory patterns of colors.

And then there's Mitch and Mickey, once the sweethearts of the folk world, whose bittersweet reunion is the film's gentle heart. Eugene Levy turns in a deceptively simple performance as the fragile Mitch, who in the years following his public breakup with Mickey released a couple of morbid records (complete with morosely hilarious song titles like "If I Had a Gun") before ending up in a psychiatric home (from which he's only recently been released). Despite seeming to base Mitch's speaking voice on sitcom veteran Max Wright (Alf, Norm), Levy's performance is shaded with real feeling. We're allowed to laugh at Mitch's non-sequitur-laden tics and the plethora of pill bottles on his hotel bed-side table, but Levy also makes us sensitive to Mitch's fragility. He's aided in this by fellow SCTV Catherine O'Hara, whose suburban housewife Mickey looks upon her emotionally unstable partner with a mixture of concern, regret and, increasingly, tenderness. The scene in which these two estranged performers re-enact the famous kiss that was a signature of their biggest hit is unusually moving, and all too authentic in its awkwardness.

There are some laughs to be had, of course, among them the folk songs themselves; the stirring title song, performed by all three acts during the tribute's closing number, elicits chuckles for its lyrics about a wind that's "blowing you and me." And watching the Folksmen sing the dodderingly portentous "Never Did No Wanderin'" (brilliantly puffed up later, in an act of scrubbed-down plagiarism, by the New Main Street Singers) evokes a warm, comfortable nostalgia; it's the closest we get to the musical chemistry the three actors exhibited as the principals in Spinal Tap.

A Mighty Wind, then, lacks the bite -- and therefore the more substantial laughs -- of Guest's previous efforts. And the formula he mined so effectively in Best in Show begins to wear out its welcome here; too often, Wind feels like an afterthought, as if it were knocked off in a leftover burst of creative energy during the filming of Show. Not quite reverential but far from the pointed jab it could have been, it occupies an oddly affectionate middle ground that, while not without its laughs and an unexpected poignancy, nonetheless feels like less of a mighty wind than a calming breeze.

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