A Mighty Wind is the latest mock documentary from Christopher Guest and his entourage, the crew of gifted actors and comedians also responsible for the almost indescribably funny Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman, and This is Spinal Tap. Like those earlier films, which skewered dog shows, civic theater, and heavy metal rock bands, A Mighty Wind immerses us in an esoteric subculture–in this case, the world of washed up folk musicians from the early sixties. Immersion is the key: the laughs in A Mighty Wind come less from its moments of broad comedy than from its aura of hyperreality, the sense that we’re getting a look back at a parallel universe where folk duo Mitch and Mickey’s kiss on national TV constituted, in the words of one commentator, quoted early in the film, "not only a great moment for folk music, but possibly, a great moment for humans."
As Wind opens, famous folk music impresario Irving Steinbloom has passed away, and his control-freak son, played by Bob Balaban, is trying to organize a folk festival in his honor. He has asked three of his Dad’s favorite bands from the sixties to participate in a concert, which will be held at the historic (and entirely fictional) Town Hall in NYC. The first two bands are an easy sign: The New Main Street Singers, a self-described "neuf-tet" in the New Christie Minstrels ensemble vein, have spent the last twenty years in denial of their blatant irrelevancy, performing their over-caffeinated, Wonder Bread folk-stylings under fairground roller coasters. In the meantime, the Folksmen, a semiotic blend of the Kingston Trio and the Limelighters, have never gotten over the fact that their only hit was the innocuous, irresistably tuneful "Eat at Joes," and see the reunion as an opportunity to introduce the world to their more "authentic" folk music–such as their lugubrious elegy for the Spanish Civil War.
The third band Balaban wants for the event is a much more difficult prospect. The legendary Mitch and Mickey, played by Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, emblematize the music at its purest and most beautiful, but their stormy off-stage passion ultimately resulted in Mitch’s long-term commitment to a psychiatric hospital and Mickey’s passionless marriage to a urologist. Balaban gets their signatures on the contract–but can he get the brilliant but manic-depressive Mitch to pull himself together enough for a coherent performance? And, most importantly, is the legendary chemistry still active enough in the Mitch and Mickey relationship to guarantee the climactic "kiss at the end of the rainbow"?
Most of the songs in A Mighty Wind were written by Guest, along with his erst-while Spinal Tap collaborators, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean, and they are near-perfect simulations of pop-folk songs of the era. If A Mighty Wind has a flaw, its that there simply isn’t enough music. Even during the penultimate Town Hall concert, the movie keeps cutting away to observe backstage antics, while the funniest and most moving material is all happening on stage. "Eat at Joes" in its complete form is a masterpiece of kitsch songwriting; "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" is as lovely as its legend portends. When Winds’ hapless sixties relics are singing and strumming their guitars, the film achieces a near impossible blend of withering satire and aching nostalgia. While much of its straight-up parody is strained or predictable, in its uncanny musical moments, A Mighty Wind becomes a visionary movie, a new-millenium Nashville.
You can find this review, along with other reviews of past and current film, theater, and opera, on our website, at wfiu.indiana.edu. In the meantime, this is Jonathan Haynes, reviewing movies for WFIU.