Today’s cinema adventure: A Mighty Wind, the 2003 “mockumentary” feature by master-of-the-genre Christopher Guest, following the efforts to reunite several legendary folk-music acts for an impromptu concert paying tribute to their recently deceased producer. With several characters developed from an earlier appearance on Saturday Night Live and songs penned mostly by the principal cast (along with Annette O’Toole, wife of frequent Guest collaborator Michael McKean, and C.J. Vanston, the film’s music director- who also appears), it received mostly positive response from critics and moderate success with the public, though it failed to achieve the popularity of Guest’s previous effort, Best In Show– possibly because of its focus on a less universal interest (folk singers are not as much of a draw as fanatical dog owner, apparently) and its more serio-comic tone. Nevertheless, it has achieved a substantial cult following, alongside Guest-and-company’s other films, and together with these has exerted a visible influence in the creation of a whole new pseudo-documentary style for popular entertainment- particularly on television where successful shows such as Modern Family can be clearly seen as an outgrowth of this genre.
The script for A Mighty Wind, as with all Guest’s movies in this style, was generated through improvisation by its stellar cast, which is comprised almost entirely of veterans from the director’s stock company of players. When pioneering folk-music impresario and producer Irving Steinbloom passes away, his three children- spearheaded by the fastidious and über-cautious Jonathan- organize a televised memorial concert to be performed at New York’s famous Town Hall; featured will be three of their father’s most famous and beloved acts, two of which have been long-disbanded. The New Main Street Singers are the latest incarnation of a “supergroup” which once dominated the folk scene, now touring the County Fair circuit and headed by husband-and-wife team Terry and Laurie Bohner, with a sizable lineup which includes the minimal participation of only one original founding member; The Folkmen, an acoustic trio comprised of the relatively good-natured Mark Shubb, Alan Barrows, and Jerry Palter, are enthusiastic about the challenge of returning to the stage to and pleased to be performing together after decades apart; the most eagerly anticipated reunion, however, is that of Mitch and Mickey, a ballad-crooning duo whose starry-eyed connection fueled a successful career in which they captured the idealistic imagination of a generation of fans- and which collapsed along with their romance, leaving Mitch a burnt-out, drug-addled has-been and Mickey the discontented middle-aged housewife of a medical catheter salesman. As the date of the concert approaches, the various participants offer a behind-the-music look at their personal and professional lives, revealing both the expected clichés of the musical genre and a few not-so-typical surprises- including adult film careers, bizarre cult affiliations, and gender-identity issues- along the way; but the most pressing concern is whether or not Mitch and Mickey can overcome their long-unresolved passions and resentments to recapture the former magic of their collaboration- and indeed, whether they will make it to the stage at all.
The first and foremost objective of A Mighty Wind, of course, is to amuse; beginning with his involvement in Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap– the grand-daddy of all “mockumentaries,” and a classic that maintains an enormous fan following to this day- Guest has mined comedy gold by sending up the foibles of odd little social niches- small-town community theater in Waiting for Guffman, competition dog breeders in Best in Show– with shrewdly observational explorations of their rarified worlds. A Mighty Wind is cut from the same cloth as his earlier efforts, and it mercilessly attacks its target with just as much relish. The folk music movement of the early sixties was marked not only by the militant political activism of Phil Ochs or the oblique poetry of Bob Dylan, but by the squeaky-clean warblings of such groups as The Kingston Trio and The New Christy Minstrels; in its portraits of the three fictional acts upon which it focuses, A Mighty Wind draws inspiration from all these sources for its parody, but it takes particular glee in its depiction of the extremely white-bread, middle-class sensibility that marks the genre. These are not the visionary firebrands we might expect from a group of folkies dating back to the pre-hippie days, though there are traces of Dylan and his ilk to be found in the character of Mitch; rather, they are an assortment of more-or-less middle-of-the-road types who seem oblivious not only to the gap between their personalities and the music they perform, but to any of the irony that can be derived from it. Aside from the New Main Street Singers, who deliberately present an almost sickeningly wholesome image in spite of their bizarre habits and shady histories, these people are more or less exactly what they appear to be, unsophisticated and bland. They are unquestionably talented- in order for the premise to work, they have to be talented- but their music comes more, perhaps, from imitation than imagination, the pleasant-but-hollow product of a privileged generation trying to emulate the hard-won brilliance of musical pioneers who came before them. A great deal of the movie’s comic genius can possibly be better experienced listening to the soundtrack album, since the keen musical parodies crafted by the cast beg for our full attention in order to be properly appreciated; even so, in true “mockumentary” fashion, a lot of mileage is gained through “archive footage” of the groups performing in their heyday, along with wickedly satirical photographic depictions of various events, costumes and album covers from the era, most of which evoke memories of real-life personalities and their work.
A Mighty Wind, however, does not depend solely on the easy laughs derived from poking fun of bygone trends in music and pop culture; it also finds a wealth of humor in the well-developed, fully-drawn characters created by its superb collection of comedic performers. With each outing, Guest’s growing gang of cohorts, comedy legends all, managed even greater dimension in the creation of their characters, making whichever group of off-kilter average folk they happen to be skewering seem more and more fully realized and authentic. By this time around, the troupe had reached the point of tipping the scales beyond simply lampooning their subjects, resulting in a genuine emotional connection that sometimes brings the story- almost- into the realm of serious character drama. To be sure, the satirical edge is never absent, but there are moments when heartfelt sentiment emerges with enough strength to transcend the comedic style and unexpectedly strike a more resonant chord. For the most part, this is reserved for the segments of the film that revolve around Mitch and Mickey, who seem to embody the lost spirit of the sixties, a feeling of youth and unlimited possibility that was soon to be buried and replaced by the worldly cynicism born of disappointment and failure; in the tentative efforts of this broken duo to bridge the gulf between past and present, A Mighty Wind expresses a yearning for lost idealism that cannot help but affect us at a deeper level than the snarky humor that otherwise dominates it.
Whether or not this is a negative criticism depends upon your point of view. For many fans of Guest’s trademark formula, the crossover into pathos may be too much, an attempt to take the characters as seriously as they take themselves- and, of course, the key connecting theme of all these films, and the source of most of their comedy, is the fact that its characters take themselves far too seriously, investing their storm-in-a-teacup concerns with world-shaking significance and underscoring their own foolishness at every step. For me, however, the underlying factor which makes these comedies funny- as opposed to hip and snarky- is the humanity with which Guest and his players treat their buffoonish creations. In their efforts to puff themselves up, these champions of mediocrity enact our own desire to make a mark in the world, to rise above the mundane and often unfulfilling drudgery of an unremarkable life. By laughing at them, we can laugh at our own occasional pomposity; but because they are also, in the end, so recognizably human in the insecurities and uncertainties that inevitably show through their facades, we can forgive them their self-aggrandizement and, by extension, forgive ourselves for ours, as well. A Mighty Wind takes this equation one step further; by giving us an assortment of throwbacks to an earlier era, one at once more naive and more promising than our jaded present day, it sets up a sort of reflection on our entire cultural identity, with all its irony-laced sophistication, and its collective longing to believe in itself again- even if it’s just for a moment.
I don’t want to make it sound, however, like A Mighty Wind is one of those feel-good comedies that wins our attention with laughs and then degenerates into pseudo-heartfelt preciousness. Guest and his compatriots ensure that they never even come close to that boundary, simply by virtue of their entirely honest approach to the characters. There are no scenes of forced emotional climax; the epiphanies take place between the lines, without comment, and become part of the landscape on which further developments are built. Nor does the film present some false fable of life-changing redemption, comic or otherwise. The final scenes make it clear that whatever may have happened during the adventure of the concert, these people will continue to lead a life on the fringes, still seeking- though perhaps with renewed vigor- to grab another moment in the sun by whatever means necessary, no matter how ridiculous; and we love them all the more for their determination to go on trying, even though we may giggle at the absurdity of their attempts or feel a bit embarrassed for them over the indignities to which they stoop in their quest. Still, whereas in previous outings we only shake our heads and dismiss these further shenanigans with bemusement, in A Mighty Wind, thanks to the genuinely sympathetic insight we have gained into at least some of these loony losers, there is a pang of wistful regret added to the mix that creates a distinctive sense of melancholy. It’s not a bad thing, in my view, for even if the movie lacks the outright hilarity of Guffman or Best in Show, it stays with us in a way those previous gems do not, and the stronger emotional connection it makes leaves us feeling all the more satisfied.
Whether or not you respond to the way Guest’s film strives for more legitimacy through its forays into tenderness, it is undeniable that the work of the ensemble has here reached a new level of brilliance. Each character, no matter how small, is invested with a sense of complete life, contributing indispensably to the overall picture presented by the film. The front lines are manned by the performers taking on the personae of the musicians. Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Guest himself are The Folksmen, giving the workmanlike trio an unrelenting aura of positivity that may occasionally be strained but is never forced, making them a sort of flip side to their trio of heavy metal rockers in Spinal Tap; foremost amongst the New Main Street Singers are John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch as the headlining Bohners, who give the pair a comically unsettling aura of sexual ambiguity and deep dysfunction under their slick-and-shiny patina of professional cuteness, with Parker Posey adding her own touch as a former-delinquent-turned-group-member who exudes the vacuous zealotry of a brainwashed teenage cultist; and giving the film its heart- while still providing mordant commentary through their keenly-observed performances- are the incomparable Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, as Mitch and Mickey, respectively. These latter two take their improv-built characters to a depth and fullness that rivals those in any conventional screenplay, layering them with a kind of subtext and dimension that makes us forget these are not real people on the screen. Levy brilliantly exudes the aura of the intense, visionary and antisocial poet, seething with all the charisma that entails, until he opens his mouth to reveal his true nature as an inarticulate, fatuous burnout whose emotional and social maturity seems to have ceased developing circa 1965. It is O’Hara, though, who steals the show with her remarkable portrayal of Mickey, the sensible and pragmatic housewife who finds the dreams of her youth- and her passions for the love of her life- are reawakened by the chance to relive her gone-but-not-forgotten glory days. She alone, of all these misfits, defies ridicule; she is foolish, yes, and caught up in an illusion as much as any of the others, but she is also eminently likable in her blend of down-to-earth simplicity and mature sophistication, and we find ourselves hoping alongside her that the promise of her past can at last come triumphantly to fruition. It’s a forgone conclusion that it won’t, at least not in any lasting way, but O’Hara’s complete and sincere commitment to the role allows us to fool ourselves just as willingly as Mickey does, and her inevitable disillusionment is ultimately perhaps more heartbreaking for us than it is for her. It’s a transcendent piece of acting, by any standards, and together with her old SCTV cohort Levy, she makes A Mighty Wind as poignant a portrait of unrequited longing as any “legitimate” Hollywood romance.
Other fine performances come from stalwarts such as Bob Balaban (as the anal-retentive Jonathan Steinbloom, who along with Michael Hitchcock as a Town Hall event coordinator provides the movie’s biggest laugh-out-loud moment), Fred Willard (as a leering and embarrassingly tacky sitcom-has-been-turned-agent), Ed Begley, Jr. (as a public television executive of Jewish/Scandinavian descent), and the scene-stealing Jennifer Coolidge (sporting a ridiculously unplaceable accent as possibly the stupidest P.R. agent in history). Making the cast’s contribution even more impressive, of course, is the fact that those impersonating the musicians not only wrote the movie’s musical selections, but also played and sang them, in some cases teaching themselves the necessary instruments. The result, as noted above, is a collection of songs that are not only wickedly hilarious but are as infectious and memorable as the ones they so cleverly mock; indeed, Mitch and Mickey’s signature hit (which plays a key role in the story) is so authentic that it stands on its own, without irony, and received a nomination for Best Song at the Academy Awards; and the film’s title tune (with its brilliant lyric, “A mighty wind is blowin’ […] it’s blowin’ peace and freedom, it’s blowin’ you and me”) was actually awarded a Grammy for Best Song Composed for a Movie.
In this prodigious display of talent, its easy to overlook the contributions of the film’s director. Guest- in addition to his subtly hilarious turn as the vaguely dim-witted, Garfunkel-haired, fuddy-duddiest third of The Folksmen- humbly provides his skills as a guiding hand; much of his genius rests in his willingness to turn his collaborators loose in front of the camera and let them work their magic, but his ability to piece together a finished result cannot be underestimated. He shapes a coherent, intelligent, touching and hilarious narrative out of what must have been hundreds of hours of footage, and A Mighty Wind is a testament to his patience and dedication as much as his sense of humor and his talent- both behind and in front of the camera.
As with all of Guest’s films, appreciation for A Mighty Wind is dependent on a number of factors. A taste for satire is required, as is a fondness for dry humor and an enjoyment for both “high” and “low” comedy; it certainly helps to have at least a passing knowledge of whichever insular world on which he has chosen to turn his focus. Those without exposure to the history or conventions of folk music may find little amusement in A Mighty Wind, just as those who have never seen a small town theatre production may not “get” Waiting for Guffman. For those “in the know,” both films are funny; but whereas Guffman (and Best in Show, for that matter) has a tendency towards an almost mean-spirited ruthlessness in its approach, this time around, the Guest Gang seems to have mellowed; not that they have lost their edge, but perhaps they have softened it. There is a fondness for the people of A Mighty Wind that seeps into us as we watch, bonding us to them in a way we could never achieve with, say, Corky St. Clair of Guffman; these characters become a part of us, and seem as real to us- perhaps more so, in fact- as the true-life musicians that inspired them. Furthermore, because the film’s humor- and its pathos- is based more in its characters than on its subject matter, A Mighty Wind might just be, despite the relative obscurity of the milieu in which it dwells, the most accessible of these movies. At any rate, it certainly touches on a more universal nerve than any of the others, and does so in a way that is both touching and faintly unsettling, like a wistful reminder of a mark we once made for ourselves as a culture- and a remonstration for having fallen so far short of it.