'A Mighty Wind' marks a new direction for Guest
Since making a documentary-style short for "Saturday Night Live" about a male synchronized swimming team, Christopher Guest has become the master of a genre of film that has come to be known as the mockumentary. But Guest has never been comfortable with that term, saying in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, "I hope that what people get out of this is a view of human behavior."
Never has that view been clearer or more accurate than in his latest work, "A Mighty Wind." With a combination of trademark improvised humor and poignant moments of emotion, the film comes closer to looking and feeling like an actual documentary than any of Guest's previous works. It may not be the funniest movie he's ever made, but it is the best.
Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Michael McKean, Parker Posey, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban and all the rest of Guest's reparatory players have returned for this look at three folk groups from the early '60s.
The Folksmen (Guest, McKean and Harry Shearer) are a purist folk trio who won popularity with a hit about a diner called "Old Joe's Place." The New Main Street Singers, led by Terry Boehner (John Michael Higgins) are a bubble-gum folk outfit featuring only one of the nine original Main Street Singers. Mitch & Mickey (Levy and O'Hara) had several hits while lovers in the '60s but had a falling out at the end of the decade.
The three groups are brought together when their former manager Irving Steinbloom dies and his family organizes a memorial concert. As usual for a Guest film, hilarity ensues.
Much of the humor comes from Guest's ability to create "vintage" photographs and video footage. From the Folksmen's releases on Folktone Records to the black-and-white footage of early Main Street Singers performances to Mitch & Mickey's "Meet The Beatles"-style album cover, the musical in-jokes are as plentiful as they were in "This Is Spinal Tap."
But you don't have to be a music buff to guffaw at discussions of vinyl records with no holes in them, the business of selling catheters and a religious sect known as the Witches in Nature's Color.
Equally funny is the tension between the various factions involved in putting on the concert. The Folks-men and New Main Street Singers argue over who gets to play which songs. Jonathan Steinbloom (Balaban) is upset at venue organizer Lawrence Turpin (Michael Hitchcock) that the gigantic banjo isn't actually three-dimensional. PR man Mike LaFontaine (Fred Willard) wants to drench the New Main Street Singers during a song about sailing. These tiny conflicts provoke big laughs, and they only grow in number as the date of the concert grows nearer.
But "A Mighty Wind" is not all fun and games. There are some unexpectedly moving scenes as the story of Mitch & Mickey's reunion unfolds. After their breakup, Mitch had a mental breakdown and has not been the same since. Mickey has since married. Neither ever achieved the same success alone, and they have not seen each other since the '70s. As they become reacquainted and prepare for their first show together in some 30 years, their interactions are awkward at first, but slowly they slip back into their old chemistry like an old pair of shoes.
Kudos are in order for Levy and O'Hara for their treatment of these scenes. Neither is willing to play it up for cheap laughs, and both are very honest in their portrayals. When they share the screen, the 30-year gulf is palpable, as is their bridging of it.
Special recognition goes to Levy, who will deserve at least consideration for a Best Supporting Actor nomination come Oscar season for his portrayal of fallen musical genius Mitch Cohen. Given Mitch's history, Levy could have easily played him as an eccentric, still-tripping buffoon stuck in the '60s and would have gotten a lot of laughs doing so.
Instead, he made the decision to play Mitch as a sad casualty of life on the road, a shell of the vibrant artist he once was who's looking to this concert as a ray of hope. Watching Levy, I couldn't help but think of Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett and other musical visionaries of the '60s who might have made it out alive, but didn't necessarily make it out whole. It was a courageous choice, and Levy's performance deserves to be recognized.
My only criticism of the film is that not enough is seen of The Folksmen. This is the first time Guest, McKean and Shearer have appeared together in a movie since they were the legendary Spinal Tap, and their lack of screen time is disappointing. I suppose in a movie about three different bands that there can only be so much time dedicated to each one of them. But there's a big comic payoff for them at the movie's conclusion.
"A Mighty Wind" marks a different artistic direction for Guest, for the depth of his characters is greater than before. There are still plenty of laughs to go around, but there's also a dramatic dimension not found in Guest's earlier creations. Guest is still a great comedic mind, and now he's an equally great storyteller.