Christopher Guest has a soft spot for lost causes. His documentary-style spoofs parody intensely devoted subcultures whose rituals and values he touches up with vivid exaggeration but whose very insularityand the connections it engendersmoves him.
Guest’s age is showing as openly as his sentimentality in the gloriously zany, richly musical, and ultimately touching A Mighty Wind. This time his target is ’60s folk music, his research is impeccable (the film seems to be structured after the 1982 documentary on the Weavers’ reunion), and his characters are flawless nearly to a man. Wind feels closer to Guest’s heart than his other foray into musical writing-directing, 1996’s Waiting for Guffman, because the Guffman players were broad parodies of small-town residents with their little blindnesses and biases. The new film, by contrast, casts a fond, distorted lens on a period lived through by many, populated with very real acts, and notoriously rigid in its self-definition. It’s a risky choice, and it isn’t Guest’s goodwill that pays tribute to the era and the people but his accuracy.
The film tracks a reunion concert of ’60s folk greats, centering on an echt-Guest triothe director as banjo player Alan, Michael McKean as guitarist Jerry, and Harry Shearer, in weird Amish facial hair, as stand-up bassist Markcalling themselves the Folksmen. The Folksmen are exemplars of that strange moment in which the clean-cut balladeers of the ’50s ran up against the New Authenticity of the early ’60s. They were nice boys, not above cutting the occasional novelty song full of homey goodness (the hilarious “Eat at Joe’s”) but dedicated to the integrity of American regional music. They reunite at a picnic with the kind of time-bridging banter spoken by old friends the world over (“Hey, I recognize this guy. Did you used to have more hair?”) and seem charmingly ordinary for it.
In the opposite corner are the New Main Street Singers, exemplars of that strange moment when clean-cut balladeers of the ’50s swallowed the words and tunes of folk music whole and burped up cheery, singalong pablum about picking cotton and working the chain gang, all while wearing matching sweaters of Pat Boone blue. (New Christy Minstrels, anyone?) It’s a credit to Guest’s restraint that he doesn’t villainize the Main Street Singers for their defanged, white-bread spiritualsthat point of view comes from the characters, not from the director, and only late in the game. Beneath its sparkling enamel surface, the group is a haven for lost souls, drawing in runaway kids and porn actresses and people with no purpose or place to go. Parker Posey plays Sissy, the former runaway, with the indefatigable pep of a naive girl who could have been sold into anything, and Jane Lynch is brilliant as Laurie Bohner, the motherly ex-pornstress who chats about her past and her ridiculous spiritual beliefs while her awe-struck husband listens uncomfortably.
Then there’s Mitch & Mickey, a legendary duo onstage and off-. Mickey (Catherine O’Hara) is the kind of earnest folk princess who inspired a thousand girls to iron their hair; Mitch (Eugene Levy) is a notoriously odd and temperamental genius who was to folk, it seems, what Brian Wilson was to pop. Because they’re arguably the biggest stars of the reunion show, both Mitch and Mickey’s presence is vital. Indeed, the film garners its tension from withholding the highly dysfunctional male half of the bandit might as well be called Waiting for Mitch.
Because the character is so slow to appear, it’s obvious that something’s very wrong with Mitch. He’s no longer institutionalized, but when he finally shows uplooking just like an aging sex symbol for girls in glasses, right down to his wild mane of gray hairhe’s still not quite right. Levy plays him as man hit by a psychological truck, his voice halting and unsure but rich with gravitas, his panicked expression not far from the bug-eyed look of absolute earnestness he sported on early album covers. Will Mitch reunite with Mickey? Will he be able to go onstage? Will the duo seal their signature tune, “The Kiss at the End of the Rainbow,” with the midsong peck that made them famous?
Waiting for Guffman and the Kennel Club-culture parody Best in Show were hardly “mockumentaries,” although the word was coined for Guest, who reportedly disapproves of it. The films are rife with impossibilitiesflashbacks and photographs that prove, extrapolate on, or counter claimed absurditiesand the humor is too freewheeling to cut as fine as naturalistic satire; there’s an air of “Can you top this?” among the riffs of his stock company’s semi-improvisation that sets the films firmly on fictional ground. Wind works this way, too, blatantly backing up the otherwise unprovable, showing a Mary Ellen Mark-style portrait of Sissy from her days on the streets and giving free rein to a bizarre group memory as the Folksmen recall when their records didn’t have holes. (“They would teeter crazily on the little spindle,” says Mark.) So folkies, with their tiresome nitpicking over perceived authenticity, will abhor the liberties and omissions.
But Guest has all the values right even if he changes the names, and the songs are splendid, far more nuanced and specific than the
single-entendre yockfest of the stool song from Guffman. It sounds ridiculous when, early on, a character calls Mitch & Mickey’s ritualistic onstage kiss “the most momentous event in humankind.” But the characters’ anticipation is contagious as the big night approaches, and it becomes clear that the kiss stands for something much bigger: the legitimacy of folk, perhaps, or the human connection to be found in music, or the continuing viability of an art form considered, in its purest state, to have been dead by the time these people revived it 35 years ago. The microcosmic scale of the drama doesn’t alienate you but sucks you intime is running out on the genre’s relevance, but the Folksmen, famous for “Eat at Joe’s,” still yearn to play a serious song with respect for the travails of its originators.
The film bumps clumsily to a halt, as do all of Guest’s films, when he follows his characters into the humiliating low-end futures he finds so cute. (A truly terrible twist for Shearer’s Mark is worth more than a grumble.) But overall, A Mighty Wind is Guest at his peaka funny, moving, and swift elegy for an era, written by an old softie with a poison pen. CP