By the time I reached high school in the late 1950s, my collection of LPs was almost evenly divided among rock-and-roll, folk, and classical. As I got older, my interest in rock waned and the folk era died out, leaving me for most of my adult life with classical by default. But I'm still an old folkie at heart.
The Random House Dictionary defines folk music as "usually of simple character and anonymous authorship, handed down among the common people by oral tradition," and my first memories of it were of Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, and the Weavers in the late forties and early fifties singing things like "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine," "On Top of Old Smokey," "Rock Island Line," and "Erie Canal." But it wasn't until 1957 that folk music went gold with the Kingston Trio's number-one hit, "Tom Dooley." Then we had a folk boom in the nation that lasted a good decade or more, with traditional folk singers like Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Ian and Sylvia, the Clancy Brothers, and Joan Baez vying with more commercial groups like Peter, Paul and Mary, the Chad Mitchell Trio, the Smothers Brothers, the New Christy Minstrels, the Highwaymen, the Brothers Four, and the Limeliters. By the end of the sixties, everyone was strumming a guitar, and the line between folk and pop was further being blurred by performers like Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel.
As with everything else, though, the popularity of folk music ebbed and faded, the most successful artists continuing on in smaller venues, often with supplemental personnel, and catering to a loyal but ever-aging following. Which brings us, finally, to our subject at hand, "A Mighty Wind," a movie that should reach everyone, but whose gentle humor might best be appreciated by those who've been there.
The names of Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy together mean two things these days: fun and funny. They're the guys responsible for "Waiting for Guffman," the send-up of little theater, and "Best in Show," the spoof of dog shows and dog owners. Now, they've aimed their soft-edged barbs at old folk singers and folk reunions, resulting in another entertaining, if less focused, motion picture.
When I say "less focused," I mean if there's any question about the film, it's that sometimes it's hard to distinguish exactly where the parody ends and the serious entertainment of singing begins. The actors involved are, of course, supposed to be putting on the whole over-the-hill folkie thing, and the characters are bizarre enough to get that across; yet in the process the actual singing is really quite good and highly enjoyable. So, while the satire may seem misplaced at times, the film can still be enjoyed on two levels: as an amusing series of caricatures, naturally, and as an pleasing evening of vocalizing, too. In the end, who cares, as long as it entertains. Fact is, in 1980 the Weavers packed Carnegie Hall a quarter century after they last played there; more recently, PBS did remarkably well with a pledge-night concert reuniting many of the old folk groups mentioned above; and at the moment of this writing, Simon and Garfunkel were selling out stadiums across the country in their reunion tour. Art imitates life imitates art. Maybe it even imitates Art Garfunkel. Good music is good music is good music.
Directed by Guest and cowritten and co-starring Guest and Levy, "A Mighty Wind" is a mockumentary about a live reunion concert of old 60's folk bands. That every character involved in the reunion is as mad as a hatter goes without saying. A beloved folk impresario, Irving Steinbloom, has just died, and as a tribute to the man, his son, Jonathan (Bob Balaban), decides to organize a live television broadcast featuring all the old bands his dad promoted.
Guest gives himself a relatively small part as a member of a trio called the Folksmen, and Levy has a much bigger role as one half of the sweetheart team of Mitch and Mickey. But things aren't quite the same as they used to be for any of these folkies, especially for Mitch Cohen. During their singing days, Mitch and Mickey were doting onstage but at each other's throats offstage. After their breakup, Mitch was institutionalized, and as the movie opens he's only just left a mental hospital to join his old partner for the reunion. Levy's mumbling, neurotic, insecure, half-delusional Mitch is the funniest thing in the show, not for demeaning his mental condition but for showing us he was probably always this way. After all, everybody's a little crazy. It's also amusing to note that the movie suggests virtually everybody who is or ever has been involved with the business of folk music is Jewish. You may never have noticed that.
As always with these mockumentaries, there's no plot to get in the way of the droll characterizations. So you relish the absurd interviews and the zany repartee. Jonathan Steinberg's compulsive-retentive behavior, for instance, is attributable to an overprotective mother who made him wear a football helmet during chess matches. When the Folksmen were down on their luck, their record company was so cheap they refused to provide a center hole for their LPs; buyers had to punch the hole themselves. There are any number of such goofy, often laugh-out-loud bits in the film, combined with a couple of genuinely touching scenes.
Naturally, everything is done with a perfectly straight face, no matter how preposterous, or it wouldn't work. The only obvious exception to this rule is Fred Willard as Mike LaFontaine, the crackpot manager of the New Main Street Singers, who exaggerates his character more than the rest, making a nice contrast. Ed Begley as television producer Lars Olfen, a Swedish Jew, is perhaps a better example of the movie's low-key wit. Even better is Jennifer Coolidge as a totally airheaded publicity agent who sincerely has no idea what's going on around her and blithely keeps smiling through.
Everything in the film is calculated to lead up to the climactic live television broadcast of the concert, where, as expected, various disasters strike. Then, what could have been an equally disastrous moment of saccharine emotionalism on the filmmakers' part toward the end of the concert turns, instead, into a poignantly sweet moment for everyone.
All the songs in the film were apparently made up, and they're meant to be as insipid as possible. The groups reuniting in the story were never in the angry protest category of folk musicians but represent the mainstream artists of their time. Nevertheless, the songs are so well sung, one doesn't care about their lack of substance. I'd guess that's part of the satire as well.
"A Mighty Wind" is a short film at about ninety minutes, and it's filled with way too many people for the average viewer to remember, but it all comes off surprisingly well. While I didn't find it quite as funny overall as "Guffman" or "Best in Show," I did enjoy it as much, possibly because of the music involved. Possibly, too, because I have a greater love for folk music than I do for little theater or dog shows, and Guest and Levy's affectionate send-up of the folk music genre hit home.
The picture quality is about what you'd expect from a film of this kind, a film with a decent budget and a big studio backing it. The anamorphic widescreen size measures approximately 1.74:1 across a normal television, grain is almost completely absent, and colors are bright and vivid. The image definition is not always perfect, and jittery lines sometimes distract in a minor way, but, overall, it's good, modern video reproduction.
The audio is also about what you'd expect: Dolby Digital 5.1 producing clean, clear sonics. Dynamics are strong in the musical numbers, the bass goes down respectably low, and the music evinces a pleasantly natural surround ambience. Even the audience in the closing concert can be heard in the rear speakers, adding to the illusion of reality.
Anticipating the wishes of what must be a devoted and almost cultish following for the Guest-Levy films, Warner Brothers have decked out the DVD with more than a few bonus items. One cannot get along without the compulsory audio commentary, needless to say with Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy. After that are fifteen additional scenes, about twenty-two minutes worth, that comprise almost an entire second feature. In addition, there are so-called "vintage" TV appearances by the bands, which recreate the garish atmosphere of the sixties, plus a live TV broadcast of the climactic benefit show in its entirety, about twenty minutes long, both with optional commentary. Lastly, there are short text biographies of the Folksmen, The New Main Street Singers, and Mitch and Mickey; twenty-eight scene selections; a widescreen theatrical trailer; and a plug for the movie's CD soundtrack album. English and French are the spoken language choices, with English, French, and Spanish for subtitles.
Pete Seeger once said, "You can't repeat the past, but the past you can recall." Guest and company strive in "A Mighty Wind" to entertain us by recalling the past, while simultaneously making us smile at those who would try to repeat it. Like "Guffman" and "Best in Show," the movie never makes fun of its subject, but pokes gentle fun at some of the more eccentric folk involved in it. "A Mighty Wind" is comical, satiric, and loving at the same time.