Film of the Week: 'A Mighty Wind'

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent  |  April 17, 2003 at 11:03 AM
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LOS ANGELES, April 17 (UPI) -- "A Mighty Wind" is another fake show biz documentary in the lineage sired by the immortal "This Is Spinal Tap." Christopher Guest, who starred in that 1984 comedy as Nigel Tufnel, a thick as a brick heavy metal guitarist, revived its semi-improvised format for his 1996 community theater spoof "Waiting for Guffman" and 2000's shaggy dog show satire "Best in Show."

"A Mighty Wind" gently parodies some washed-up remnants of the 1960s folk music boom as they regroup to put on a show for public television to honor the late impresario Irving Steinbloom (modeled on real life folk mogul Albert Grossman).

Guest, an English nobleman more formally known as the fifth Baron Haden-Guest of Saling, consistently wins critical accolades for his deadpan lampoons. The intrinsic box office limitation of Guest's mockumentaries, however, is that they're funniest to lovers of documentaries. And those folks don't tend to get out to the megaplex on Saturday night much, because that's when their favorite PBS station airs pledge week concerts starring Art Garfunkel.

Fortunately, Guest's films don't cost much to make, and they generate good word of mouth. Despite the expert comic timing of Guest's troupe of 50-something actors, his films' lines sound best when your friends repeat them to you.

"A Mighty Wind" reunites Guest with his Spinal Tap bandmates Michael McKean (Lenny from "Laverne and Shirley") and Harry Shearer (17 characters on "The Simpsons"). This time, they're The Folksmen, a cheery singing trio hoping for a comeback after 30 years.

A debate over whether to wear their old flannel shirts on stage gets them entangled in inane Spinal Tap-style epistemological meanderings: "The costumes are retro now, but they weren't retro then. They were 'nowtro.'"

Catherine O'Hara, the queen of Toronto's famed 1970s "SCTV" show, plays one-half of a long-defunct romantic duo. Eugene Levy, another SCTV alum and Guest's writing partner, portrays her quasi-catatonic ex-partner. Levy's popularity is peaking at age 57 with his scene-stealing turn in "Bringing Down the House" as the lawyer with the darker-the-berry-the-sweeter-the-juice philosophy.

"A Mighty Wind" frequently touches on the curious demographics of folk music. Although early 1960s folkies prided themselves on their authenticity as they strummed Scots-Irish hillbilly tunes, the genre, like PBS and NPR today, appealed most to East Coast Jews and Great Lakes Gentiles. Bob Dylan, a Jew born in Duluth, was the perfect hybrid.

As Steinbloom's son, tiny Bob Balaban, once again portraying a Jewish entertainment executive, has a memorable scene setting up the broadcast with big, blonde Ed Begley Jr. He plays the folk-loving manager of an NYC public television station who speaks in a strangely appropriate Swedish-Yiddish patois: "Yah, yah, that's meshuggah!"

Oddly, top comedians have tended to come from similar locales at least since the debut of "Saturday Night Live" and "SCTV" in the mid-1970s. With the Second City improv troupes in Toronto and Chicago functioning as farm teams, this Great Lakes influence has become pervasive in comedy.

Guest and Levy let veterans like Fred Willard (doing another of his jolly jerks) improvise. To keep the story (and budget) on track, though, they carefully structure what can happen within each scene.

"A Mighty Wind's" restraint is admirable. For example, the uncomfortable ex-lovers are primarily based on the obscure Canadian duo Ian & Sylvia, when they could have gone for the easy yuks by modeling them on a reunion of Cher and Congressman Sonny Bono or of Dylan and Joan Baez.

Still, they pay the price for their tastefulness by harvesting more chuckles than laughs. The fundamental problem with "A Mighty Wind" as satire is that it's too humane toward its victims. While the dim vulgarity of Spinal Tap's rockers -- "These go to eleven" -- made them ready targets, the fatal flaw of the folkies was their dweebiness. The filmmakers, though, are now too mature to find low testosterone levels adequate inspiration for Swiftian outrage.

As a story, "A Mighty Wind" suffers from lack of conflict. Levy should have played a Dylan character, a superstar who condescends to appear, having forgotten how much he is bitterly resented by the other musicians for outmoding folk music when he switched to electric guitar rock in 1965.

Dylan is a man so ambitious for adulation that he's wasted a good part of his life trying to become a movie star despite possessing no screen charisma whatsoever, as proven again by "Masked & Anonymous," Dylan's new and strangely similar ensemble film about a benefit concert. When The Beatles arrived, Dylan realized that acoustic music was inherently the wrong horse to ride to superstardom.

Folk was too communal. Hip young Americans didn't want to sing along with their fellow citizens anymore. They wanted to express their individuality by having a handful of vastly wealthy celebrities do their singing for them.

It's hard not to sympathize with Guest's sympathy for his beaten-down folkies.

Rated PG-13 for sex-related humor.

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