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A Christopher Guest folkumentary


The historic success of This is Spinal Tap, directed by Rob Reiner way back in 1984, demonstrates the curious position of parody in a culture that now seems to have lost any sense of irony. The film so precisely nailed its ostensible subject, a horrible British rock band (though neither discernibly better or worse than a hundred others), and the genre that inspired Tap --- the rock documentary --- that it should have dispatched that dreary form and buried it forever. Of course and alas, it did not, and the movie still occasionally deceives viewers into believing that it is an orthodox picture about an actual musical group.

            The performers in Spinal Tap, who apparently collaborated closely with Reiner, continue their unusual fascination with parodying certain sorts of serious documentary films, generally following a pattern familiar from the first movie. The group is led by Christopher Guest, the presiding genius of the ensemble, who usually also writes and directs the pictures. The group takes on subjects linked to public performance --- the small-town historical pageant, in Waiting for Guffman; dog shows, in Best in Show; and now folk singers, in A Mighty Wind --- and treats them with the methods of the dullest and least imaginative contemporary documentaries. The films proceed through a series of on-camera interviews with various participants in the performance in question, along with assorted supporters and assistants. In the form of the good old talking heads of a thousand previous works, the movies purport to show backstage life, the preparations for the particular grand public climax, and the personal stories of the various characters who inhabit the world of the film.

            In A Mighty Wind, the characters all gather for a reunion of folk singers and their fans, planned to honor the memory of a music magnate who recorded them all back in the 1960s, the heyday of folk. There's The New Main Street Singers, a huge group that rather disturbingly resembles Up With People; a trio called The Folksmen, who vaguely recall The Kingston Trio; and the duo of Mitch and Mickey --- Peter, Paul, and Mary, without one of the guys. The acts participate in a special concert at Town Hall in New York, where they perform their signature songs for an appreciative audience in the theater and the viewers of (naturally) public television. Each group recounts its history to the camera, while their former managers, agents, producers, and so forth contribute their own version of the musicians' careers, along with mostly ridiculous insights of their own.

            As any fan of Guest's work knows, the personal stories of the various performers provide most of the comedy. All the characters, as usual, inadvertently betray their own secrets or reveal bizarre bits of information --- the lead female of the clean-cut Main Street bunch started out as a porn star, for example. But the most intense and engaging person in the cast is Mitch (Eugene Levy), who at one time both sang and lived a memorable duet with Mickey (Catherine O'Hara). After Mickey broke up the relationship, Mitch suffered a serious breakdown, and now, preparing for the concert, heavily medicated, he teeters precariously on the edge of another psychotic episode.

            The customarily large troupe of familiar secondary characters all provide other bits of comedy, much of it derived from their foolish pretentiousness. Fred Willard, for example, plays a chuckling, self-absorbed idiot of a producer, who dreams up an absurd television program starring the Main Street Singers. The blond, Nordic Ed Begley, Jr. is a PBS executive named Lars Olfen, who breaks into a long string of showbiz Yiddishisms when he thinks doing so will score him points. Bob Balaban is the impossibly anal son of the record company owner, who oversees the planning of the concert. Guest himself, along with his regulars, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean, takes on a much smaller role than usual as one of the Folksmen.

            A Mighty Wind differs somewhat from its predecessors by blunting much of its satire and muting much of its parody. Despite its obvious comedy, it tends to treat its subjects with considerably more compassion than, say, Waiting for Guffman or This is Spinal Tap. Although Eugene Levy, for example, behaves very much like a disturbed man who needs to increase his medication, he also often seems more sympathetic than ridiculous. His relationship with O'Hara, though often funny, also turns out to be one of the sweetest elements of the movie.

            In keeping with his other work, Guest shows what happens to the performers after their triumph at Town Hall, the progress of their resurrected careers. Again, typically, the post-concert interviews suggest some decidedly weird consequences for the artists, from singing at trade shows to undergoing a sex-change operation. Unlike the sad disillusionments of Waiting for Guffman, or the idiotic nonsense of the band in Spinal Tap, the conclusion of A Mighty Wind seems relatively harmless and upbeat. Even the music the three groups play at the concert, though rather bland and smooth, captures some of the good nature and sweetness of the past they all celebrate. Despite the parody, folkies should love it.

A Mighty Wind, starring Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Michael McKean, Bob Balaban, Ed Begley, Jr., Harry Shearer, Jennifer Coolidge, Fred Willard, Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey, John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch; written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy; directed by Christopher Guest. Cinemark Tinseltown, The Little, Pittsford Plaza Cinema, Regal Henrietta.

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