Yes, a mighty wind's a-blowin'
Yes, it's blowin' peace and freedom,
Facts of the Case
Legendary folk music impresario Irving Steinbloom has died. His children Jonathan (Bob Balaban), Elliott (Don Lake), and Naomi (Deborah Theaker), decide to put on a concert to honor his life. To be aired on the Public Broadcasting Network, the show will reunite three of the groups Steinbloom shepherded during folk's heyday in the 1960s, The New Mainstreet Singers, The Folksmen, and Mitch & Mickey.
The New Mainstreet Singers is an aggressively perky "neuf-tet" currently led by Terry and Laurie Bohner (John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch), a sweater vest-loving whitebread with a permanent smile and his former porn star wife. On the side, the Bohners are associated with Witches in Nature's Colors (WiNC), a cult whose faithful believe in "the awesome and vibratory power of color." Also in the group is mandolin player Sissy Knox (Parker Posey), daughter of one of the original members of The Main Street Singers. The only founding member remaining in the group is George Menschell (Paul Dooley), who sits in the background and doesn't even pretend to play his guitar.
The Folksmen are Mark Shubb (Harry Shearer), Jerry Palter (Michael McKean), and Alan Barrows (Christopher Guest, who appears to have somehow channeled the spirit of still-living Peter Yarrow from Peter, Paul, & Mary). The group had one hit, "Old Joe's Place," that reached number 17 on the charts in 1965. Although they haven't played together in over 20 years, the trio (clearly modeled after the Kingston Trio) slips easily back into old rhythms.
Former husband and wife team Mitch Cohen (Eugene Levy) and Mickey Crabbe (Catherine O'Hara) had a massive hit with the lovely "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow." The couple's tender kiss during a live performance of the song on television in the 1960s launched them into the pop culture stratosphere. But Mitch's instability led to divorce, the breakup of the group, and his confinement in a sanitarium. Mickey's remarried to a catheter salesman (Jim Piddock), but is willing to reunite with her ex-husband to honor the late Steinbloom. The question is, will close proximity to Mickey send the now stable, though permanently frazzled, Mitch back off the deep end? And what'll happen when the duo comes to that moment in their hit song in which they used to plant one on each other?
Excitement builds as the concert draws near. Leading the charge is anal retentive Jonathan Steinbloom, who has to deal with the Yiddish speaking Swede (Ed Begley Jr.) who's producing the show for PBN; a fastidious and irritable event liaison at Town Hall (Michael Hitchcock); The New Mainstreet Singers' overbearing manager, Mike LaFontaine (Fred Willard), a hack comedian who repeats catch-phrases from Wha' Happened, his short-lived sitcom of the 1970s; two incompetents (Larry Miller and Jennifer Coolidge) from The Zipkin Group public relations firm; and the looming possibility that Mitch will melt down before he and Mickey hit the stage.
Like the community theater players in Waiting for Guffman, the dog show folks in Best in Show, and even the metal-heads in the Rob Reiner-directed This is Spinal Tap (1984), A Mighty Wind concerns a subculture whose members have no clue how oddball they appear to the rest of the world. Their obliviousness to their own loser status is what makes them so endearing, and Guest and company once again demonstrate a startling acuity in prodding their victims while also exuding a genuine fondness for them. One would expect an improvised comedy to be broader than the usual theatrical fare, the players delivering self-indulgent performances full of wacky one-liners. That Guest's films are actually more refined, subtle, and detailed than typical mainstream comedies is a tribute to the enormous talent and experience of his troupe. A Mighty Wind is the next step in the evolution of Guest's improvisational cinema, its comedy perfectly attuned to its characters. On the surface, the film plays cheerier than its predecessors, its darker more biting humor pressed below a squeaky-clean, seemingly earnest surface just as the perfect-in-every-way members of The New Mainstreet Singers each have a seedy, horrifying past hidden behind their sweater vests, perfect coiffures, and sparkling smiles. Broad laughs are few and far between, but the film gets funnier with each subsequent exhibition.
Also providing a unique depth to this outing is the poignancy of the Mitch & Mickey storyline, which ultimately drives the entire film. All of Guest's improvised comedies are clinics in ensemble acting, but Levy and O'Hara are the soul of Wind, the stars. Levy's been accused of playing too broadly, but anyone who believes his portrayal of Mitch is caricature must be unaware of real-life men shelled by the more harrowing aspects of the '60s music scene, like David Crosby or Brian Wilson. The ease with which viewers identify with Mitch emotionally is the only proof needed that Levy didn't go too far. His flaky performance is perfect when held in stark relief against the middle-class practicality O'Hara brings to Mickey. The two actors, whose professional association goes back decades, have no problem convincing us the singing duo share a genuine love undermined by their complete incompatibility. The tragedy of their love is surprisingly real.
The central role of music in A Mighty Wind ups the performance ante considerably from Guffman and Best in Show. And, unlike in This is Spinal Tap, a large percentage of the troupe is required to deliver convincing musical performances. The songs themselves are entirely convincing, their humor more subtle than the hilarious lyrical absurdities of Tap. The only clue, for example, that the title song (performed by all three groups at film's end) isn't an actual folk anthem is its last line (a punchline of whose double meaning the folkies are blissfully ignorant). Other songs either play exceedingly subtle lyrical games, or play it straight with the lyrics while mining humor from the accuracy with which they ape various categories of folk (dark and tragic ballads, songs for the working man, happy major key sing-a-longs), and the actors' prodigious talent for recreating the laid back, corny personas of real folk musicians. In a noticeable break from Hollywood musical orthodoxy, all of the songs are performed live—there's not a moment of lip sync to be found—and it makes all the difference in the world. The simple authenticity of the performances (essential to reproducing the vibe of folk) is one of the film's great charms. And this disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track reproduces it all with amazing clarity. It's like the performers are sitting in your living room. This is acoustic music, so the track isn't the sort that will rattle the walls, but its beauty impresses nonetheless.
With each of his improvised films, Christopher Guest has crept farther away from the documentary aesthetic. A Mighty Wind continues the tradition, limiting its use of handheld shots and presenting its scenes in the steady two shots, close-ups, and over-the-shoulders of mainstream film language. Its editing is more sophisticated than its predecessors', but it still maintains a simplicity of visual style that doesn't draw attention to itself and away from the performances. As in Tap, portions of the film involve the detailed recreation of "archival" footage and still photos. In their audio commentary, Guest and Levy discuss how digital technology was used to make the actors appear younger in this material. The results are so convincing one buys it wholesale, without even thinking to wonder how they did it. Warner's DVD transfer is magnificent. Sharp, with minimal and controlled edge enhancement, blemish-free, and sporting perfectly rendered colors, this is a brand new film and it looks like it. I have no complaints.
The disc's extras are akin to those on Warner's Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show releases, if not a step up. Again, Guest and Levy provide a talk track, and it's in keeping with the dry humor of their previous efforts. This one, as a matter of fact, leans more toward humor and less toward serious discussion about making the film (there's plenty of behind-the-scenes info, but the two talk about the mechanics of improvisation in far less detail since they've already covered that ground in the commentaries on the two previous releases).
Additional Scenes. There are 15 in all, running a total of 22 minutes. An optional commentary track by Guest and Levy is also provided. The scenes themselves are a combination of musical performances and comedic moments cut from the film. All are entertaining.
"Vintage" TV Performances of the Bands. This feature is comprised of four performances, two by The Folksmen and two by Mitch & Mickey, and runs a total of nine minutes. These are complete versions of the archival material shown in an edited form in the film proper. Included are Mitch & Mickey's historic 1966 performance of "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" on Lee Aikman's Folk Hour, and The Folkmen's 1968 performance of "Children of the Sun" on In the Groove, the trio's failed attempt at going electric which alienated their folk fans and sent their career into a downward spiral. Guest and Levy provide an optional commentary track.
PBN TV Broadcast of the Concert. This supplement is the most enjoyable. Running 23 minutes, it provides six uninterrupted songs by the three groups and also comes with optional commentary by Guest and Levy. The piece itself is culled from video coverage shot with three cameras to create monitor footage for scenes in the film that take place in the satellite truck broadcasting the concert. The result is a full screen, video sourced piece with stereo audio that comes frighteningly close to the exact look and feel of a concert event presented on Public Broadcasting.
The remaining extras include the theatrical trailer, text-based biographies of the bands, and a commercial for the film's soundtrack.
A Mighty Wind's humor is so subtle and keenly-observed, one's knowledge of and connection to folk music is bound to impact one's enjoyment of the film. Having said that, the comedic talent on display is so prodigious it's worth a peek no matter your opinion of folk. And the heart provided by the Mitch & Mickey storyline is so palpable even the folk music ignorant will relate.
Fans of Guest and his ensemble may at first find this outing less humorous than Waiting for Guffman or Best in Show, but give it another chance…and another. I think you'll find the more you watch it, the funnier it gets.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy
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