Christopher Guest may be one of those chameleon actors who is fairly impossible to recognize from one film to the next -- just look at his faces in Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and this new one. But in looking at those same three films, which he directed as well as co-starred in, you notice there's a similar stamp he puts on each one. That would be his satirical sensibility. Guffman lampooned the world of community theater, Best aimed a skewer at dog show competitions and A Mighty Wind throws some barbs the way of folk music in general and certain types of folk singers in particular.
These might seem like very different categories or targets. But what makes them all Guest's own is that he goes at them not with any kind of sharp-edged satire, but with a sweet gentleness. He's making good, hard fun of these people and institutions, but he never aims at hurting anyone's feelings. Look back at one of his earliest efforts -- This Is Spinal Tap, which he co-wrote but didn't direct -- and you'll find the same approach. That film -- often called a mockumentary -- was more endearing than it was mocking.
With A Mighty Wind, Guest and what's become his usual crowd of actors (Eugene Levy, Michael McKean, Catherine O'Hara, Harry Shearer, Fred Willard, John Michael Higgins, Parker Posey, among them) go at what's become of the folk music revival of the mid-'60s with fervor -- and with tongue planted wryly in cheek.
Told in the faux documentary style that Guest has improved upon each time out, the story is about a reunion concert being staged in memory of a beloved folk music promoter. And the focus is on three groups -- better yet, the remnants of three groups -- that he made into stars all those years ago. Naturally, they're now planning to get together to perform one more time.
The problem, though, is that the Folksmen (Shearer, McKean, Guest) have hardly spoken to each other since they disbanded; Mitch & amp; Mickey (Levy and O'Hara) really went their separate ways -- she into marriage, he into a psychiatric hospital; and the New Main Street Singers (too many to mention) are mere shells of their predecessors, the Main Street Singers.
But the adult children of the deceased promoter are going to make the show go on, no matter what. And from that simple plot description springs a harvest of things that could, and do, go wrong. In the hands of Guest and Levy, they go wrong in the funniest of ways: personal and personnel problems; show biz technicalities; and, in a nod to A Hard Day's Night, the travails of what happens when one of the performers disappears just before his scheduled appearance at a concert which is going out on live TV.
Of course, satire works best on those who are in on the joke. So even though this film is going to be fun for everyone, a whole extra level of enjoyment will go to those who remember or know of groups such as the Kingston Trio, Ian & Sylvia and the New Christy Minstrels. One of the film's strongest points is the music itself, which is not only molded into the styles of those real groups, but also happens to be pretty darn good. All of the songs were written for the film by some of the actors, and all of it is sung and played by the cast. The Folksmen are oh-so earnest, Mitch & amp; Mickey are all lovey-dovey and the New Main Street Singers are relentlessly upbeat.
And when these folks aren't singing, they're acting with aplomb. Shearer goes at it with quiet, deadpan hilarity. Levy, in the oddest of performances, takes emotional problems where they've never been before, at least in comedy. Willard, as usual, finds it nearly impossible to shut up. And Ed Begley Jr., as Lars Olfen, peppers his role with Yiddishisms that are truly sidesplitting, even if you don't have any idea what he's talking about.
One of the most amazing things about the project is that, just like Guest's previous mockumentaries, a great deal of this one is improvised. The actors all have a general idea of where things are going, some dialogue is given to them, and then they take it from there, reacting to and feeding off of each other. One of Guest's greatest contributions is the way he gives everything, from camera work to editing, a sort of shaky feel, just to add to the documentary effect. But there's no doubt that he knows exactly what he's doing.
Anyone who watches A Mighty Wind and gets it will probably want to grab the soundtrack CD, as it features complete versions of the snippets of songs that are in the film. A wonderful bonus, only on the CD, is a folkie cover of the Stones' Start Me Up. It's a version that would have horrified purists back in the days of hootenannies.