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A Mighty Wind
Stars: Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Bob Balaban, Ed Begley, Jr., Catherine O'Hara, Fred Willard, Parker Posey, Jane Lynch and John Michael Higgins
Director: Christopher Guest
Scriptwriters: Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy
Warner Brothers
Running Time: one hour and 30 minutes
Rating: PG 13

Most people know what they're getting with a Christopher Guest flick. The director of such mockumentaries as Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman (as well as the star of Spinal Tap, the greatest mockumentary of them all) has, in just a couple movies, established his modus operandi. His characters are weird in that way obsessives are weird--they're just a little too passionate about their hobbies, and their hobbies (community theater, show dogs, and folk music) are just enough out of the mainstream to provoke chortles and giggles. After establishing each character's quirks, Guest brings them together for one communal meltdown. Laughter abounds, and we're not laughing with them. We're laughing at them.

A Mighty Wind appears at first to follow the same formula. Legendary folk producer Irving Steinbloom has died, and his son Jonathan (whose lawyerly demeanor leads to an obsession with "dangerous" plants) has the idea of organizing a memorial concert with his dad's three favorite groups: The Folksmen (played by Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer), The New Main Street Singers (featuring a "nanette" of nine singers played by Parker Posey, among others) and the duo of Mitch and Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara). Of course, the New Main Street Singers is a corporatized facsimile of the original Main Street Singers, and Mitch and Mickey haven't spoken to each other in decades. A Mighty Wind is razor sharp in its depiction of the acrimonious backstage of this "peace and love" brand of music. But egged on by Jonathan, all three groups agree to come to New York City's Town Hall for one night of magical music. Chaos ensues, of course.

Helping organize the chaos is Mike LaFontaine (Fred Willard), a one-time tv star with a fondness for catch phrases. Like he did in Best in Show, Willard steals the show. His monologues, full of non sequiturs and fast-paced one-liners, are hilarious. And his suggestions for how to update folk music are wonderfully inappropriate, reminding us of how rigid the genre's parameters are.

As Spinal Tap did so many years ago with heavy metal, A Mighty Wind is pitch-perfect in its skewering of folk. Christopher Guest begins each verse with an out-sized vibrato that echoes Peter, Paul & Mary and other troubadours. The battle between purity and commercialism finds its expression in the contempt The Folksmen have for the New Main Street Singers. And folk's latent racism (has there ever been a whiter genre of music?) is exposed as The Folksmen sing a poorly-chosen, Caribbean-influenced number.

But just when it appears that the concert will fall apart in a stew of personality tics and recriminations, Guest and his co-screenwriter Levy pull their punches. Unlike Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman, which
delighted in screaming matches and on-stage meltdowns, A Mighty Wind is much kinder to its characters, more sensitive to their travails. The movie is even touching in places, particularly in a sweet, beautiful song that Mitch and Mickey sing to each other. This makes for a softer brand of comedy; it's less a bust-out-loud-laughing movie and more a smile-on-your-face film.

This doesn't mean there aren't some great jokes. One line in the title song, which can't be repeated in a family paper, had our audience laughing so hard that we missed the next two minutes of dialogue. And Eugene Levy as Mitch stumbles through the movie in a psychosis-influenced trance. A flashback to his solo albums--Cry for Help and Calling It Quits--is brilliant.

Yet, what I'll remember most about A Mighty Wind are the moments of genuine tenderness. You could argue that we were supposed to care about the trio of heavy-metal stars in Spinal Tap, but we were really just laughing at their antics. In Guest's latest movie, we're actually supposed to feel for these characters. And the movie's kind-heartedness leads to a much fuller picture. Those looking for just laughs might be a little disappointed, but the result will be satisfying to everyone else. Let the wind blow. 

J. Robert Parks

When you hear the word, "mockumentary," you immediately think of Christopher Guest and Waiting for Guffman or Best in Show. These are films that give a skewered eye into every day life, such as putting on a small town talent show, or behind the scenes at a major dog show. A Mighty Wind purports to show the audience what it is like to put on a performance with former folk singers, and in this, Christopher Guest has lost his edge, for "mockumentary" becomes "bore-umentary."

The usual suspects (stars who have appeared in previous Guest films) are gathered for this movie in which a major song promoter has died and his son (Bob Balaban) wants to put on a memorial to his father. Three groups are able to attend, and we are introduced to "Mitch and Mickey" (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara), "The Folksmen" (bassist Harry Shearer, red-haired Michael McKean and Christopher Guest), and "The New Main Street Singers" (including Parker Posey, Jane Lynch and John Michael Higgins.) The camera shows us vignettes of the lives of these people as they face us and tell what happened between their glory days of the 1960's and now. With such a large cast, the dialogue becomes tedious as we listen to one after another relate their story. This is when A Mighty Wind sags. Sight gags are wonderful (such as our first glimpse of Eugene Levy) but they last seconds, and at the halfway mark, A Mighty Wind seems like four hours long instead of 90 minutes. The film is at it's best when there is action, including rehearsals or Ed Begley, Jr. tossing out Yiddish phrases at a studio

There is potential for comedy here, but it isn't utilized. An example being the night of the performance when "The New Main Street Singers" are on before "The Folksmen" and begin singing one of the songs "The Folksmen" had scheduled. This was a perfect moment to let loose, instead the guys did "aw, gosh" and calmly chose another tune. Eugene Levy manages to steal the film as the depressed Mitch who speaks in halting phrases and looks like Robin Williams imitating Eugene Levy. Fred Willard is over the top as a promoter who always says the wrong thing at the wrong time. (he did the same thing in "Best in Show.") Actually, all the groups are fair singers and do their own work. One amusing bit is when "The Folksmen" tell why they couldn't sell records "…because they were made without a hole in the center and no one would buy them…" After the break-up of Mitch and Mickey, Mitch went downhill and ended in a mental hospital after writing "May She Rot In Hell," not a song guaranteed to please crowds. Mickey married a hospital supply salesman.

My favorite is Bob Balaban, the son of the music promoter, Steinbloom. He has to deal with his siblings, a sister who cries at folk music and a brother who hates folk music. The preparations for the memorial concert are never up to his expectations including floral arrangements (flowers too pointy), the overhead lights (they will fall and kill someone), the stage decorations (fake), and finally, the weary stage manager slaps Balaban on the side of the head. This is what you wish would happen to A Mighty Wind to get it into another gear.

Copyright 2003 Marie Asner
Submitted 4/28/03



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