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A Mighty Wind By Matt Singer
About two years ago, I was privileged to see Spinal Tap live in, of all places, Carnegie Hall. The marquee above the door read “Spinal Tap! With Special Guests: The Folksmen.” I had no idea who that was; it sounded like some sort of white supremacist group to me. When The Folksmen took the stage, I squinted down from my second balcony seat to see three old fogies playing acoustic guitars and banjos singing these crusty old folk songs. In the right forum, I might have enjoyed this musicians, but opening for Spinal Tap? England’s loudest band? C’mon! Almost immediately the crowd broke out into boos, and I was tempted to join in. Then I started to listen to the song The Folksmen were singing and I realized: it was “Start Me Up.” Wondering if something was up, I inspected the band through my binoculars and eventually realized the trio were, in fact Spinal Tap - Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer - heavily made up, playing another band of different characters. They were opening for themselves and getting booed off the stage.
This was the sort of joke that Andy Kaufman would have loved. An hour later they’d take the stage to deafening applause, but now they were content to play against people’s expectations and confuse and even disappoint them. It’s a joke that few got and even fewer laughed at. Interestingly, the film in which The Folksmen appears, A Mighty Wind, has much of the same effect, it’s amusing, warm, and surprisingly touching, but it does not have as many explosive laughs as we’ve come to expect from this troop of players who formed loosely for This is Spinal Tap and really came into existence with Guests’ Waiting for Guffman and Best In Show.
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Adhering to the structure established in Guffman and Show, Wind occurs after the death of folk icon Irving Steinbloom passes away and his most influential acts, The Main Street Singers, Mitch n’ Mickey, and the aforementioned Folksmen, reunite for a tribute concert at New York’s Town Hall. Some, like The Main Street Singers, are still on the road, with an almost entirely new lineup as, appropriately, The New Main Street Singers. The Folksmen reunite with a sense of friends getting together to reminisce about “the good old days.” But the real trouble - and naturally, the best material - comes from Mitch and Mickey, played by Guest film regulars Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara. A folky version of Sonny & Cher, Mitch and Mickey had a beautiful, fruitful creative relationship which turns sour, driving the two apart and Mitch into decades of depression (Hilariously portrayed in a series of disturbing album covers and song titles in one of Wind’s funniest bits). It seems unclear whether Mitch will perform, and, after he agrees, whether the years of drug abuse and mental illness have left him competent enough to even understand the concept of performing.
Levy’s portrayal of the eternally-frazzled Mitch is the film’s strongest; he turns straight lines funny through sheer force of will (and some impossibly expressive eyebrows). Guest’s stable of improvisational actors, including, among others, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban, and John Michael Higgins, can always be depended on for a laugh, but A Mighty Wind makes the mistake of overstuffing its cast. With so many important characters (9 musicians in The New Main Street Singers alone!), there’s simply not enough screen time in an eighty-seven minute movie for all of them. Actors who’ve really gone above and beyond in previous Guest pictures, like Parker Posey, pop up, smile, get about one good line, and step to the background.
This error’s impact is doubled by Guest’s choice to go for fewer big laughs in Wind and focus instead on the people and their music. Less time focused on these characters invests less in their fate, a big reunion concert whose success never feels in doubt. Compared to the waiting for Guffman in Waiting for Guffman and the dog show from Best In Show, Wind is almost suspenseless. The songs are accomplished and utterly convincing (and all are written, performed, and even arranged by the actors themselves) but they aren’t particularly funny, except in the way they are so earnestly performed by these folkies. Guest defined his theory of comedy in a recent issue of Rolling Stone as “people not doing things well.” By the standards established in his films of the past, these folk singers are downright successful. The result is sentimental movie that is only really affective when Levy’s screwed-up Mitch takes center stage.
As the film seemingly fails to live up to the expectations established after those classic improvisational comedies I couldn’t help but wonder: am I not getting the joke? Have the Folksmen done it again? It’s unclear, and these improvisational films tend to get better with each viewing. So far, I would say A Mighty Wind is good, but not quite up to par with its predecessors. But that could change.