The Times, They Were a-Changin'
Folk music had its pop-culture moment in the early 1960s.
The raw, authentic roots music of white and black rural America was packaged into a commercial product that sold tens of millions of records.
At the high-end of this movement were talented, socially conscious children of the suburbs like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Judy Collins. The low end was occupied by homogenized hitmakers like the Kingston Trio and the New Christy Minstrels.
A Mighty Wind, directed by Christopher Guest and co-written by Guest and Eugene Levy, is a skilled, entertaining parody of this folk scene, presented in the form of a fictional documentary or “mockumentary.” Guest co-starred in Rob Reiner's This Is Spinal Tap, which originated the genre with its hilarious re-creation of the antics of a British heavy metal band, and he has become a master of the form.
Guest's previous films, Guffman and Best in Show, satirize the worlds of small-town, Broadway-like musicals and dog shows, respectively. They cast a humorous and sometimes cruel eye on two very different groups of enthusiasts who are sincere about their passions but clueless as to how ridiculous their actions can be. At times these two movies seem to condescend to the subcultures they're parodying.
A Mighty Wind has more heart than its predecessors. This time the filmmaker allows us to get emotionally involved with his protagonists while we laugh at their foibles. The story revolves around a memorial concert for Irving Steinbloom, a folk-music mogul modeled on the late Albert Grossman who managed Bob Dylan, Odetta, and Peter, Paul and Mary. The event is being staged by Steinbloom's neurotic son, Jonathan (Bob Balaban), who grew up in his father's shadow and would have trouble organizing lunch.
For the show, Jonathan hopes to call on his father's most successful acts, each of which has real-life counterparts. The Folksmen (Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean) are an earnest acoustic combo who've aged badly. Originally created for a Saturday Night Live sketch 20 years ago, they're a pitch-perfect imitation of whitebread, collegiate combos like the Kingston Trio, the Chad Mitchell Trio and the Brothers Four.
They're to be joined on stage by the New Main Street Singers (Parker Posey, Jane Lynch, John Michael Higgins and others), a well-observed portrait of aggressively wholesome groups like the New Christy Minstrels and the Serendipity Singers.
The highlight of the concert is to be the reunion of Mitch and Mickey (Levy and Catherine O‘Hara), who were once a romantic duo offstage as well as on, much like the real-life folk stars Richard and Linda Thompson, Ian and Sylvia Tyson, and Mimi and Richard Farina. The movie's folk fans eagerly anticipate Mitch and Mickey's rendition of their signature song, “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow,” to see how the now-separated pair will handle the chaste kiss with which their shows always ended.
Guest understands the documentary form and cleverly mimics it with an imaginative mixture of awkward interviews, candid cinéma-vérité moments and pseudo-expert commentary. Unfortunately, a handful of the jokes are slightly risqué, which may turn off some family viewers.
The Folksmen and the New Main Street Singers are presented in a deadpan, satirical style that's almost always on target. The New Main Street leaders (Lynch and Higgins) dabble in a silly, New Age-like, occult spirituality that's based on the vibratory power of color; their manager, Mike LaFontaine (Fred Willard), is a washed-up TV comic who can't resist recycling some of his old material while he's hyping the group.
Mitch and Mickey are treated differently. Mitch has spent years in and out of mental institutions. Though still a sweet, gentle soul, he's permanently damaged. We wonder whether he'll be able to pull himself together enough to perform again on stage and we root for him to succeed. Mickey is now married and lives in an affluent suburb, and we're moved by her concern for her former partner's condition.
Guest achieves a remarkable authenticity in reproducing the physical details of the folk scene and the emotions it generates. But he downplays one important area — politics.
The opening narration says the music carried “a message of peace and freedom” that “young people got behind.” While this is certainly true as far as it goes, it ignores the centrality of radical, left-wing politics to the movement.
The roots music that inspired the folkies was discovered by ethnographers like Alan Lomax, who wanted to demonstrate the vibrancy of rural and urban cultures that were being destroyed by industrial capitalism.
The generation of folk musicians that preceded those parodied in A Mighty Wind often worked closely with the Communist Party (Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, the Weavers).
Folk music also provided the soundtrack for the left-wing political demonstrations of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Most civil rights and anti-war rallies were serenaded by harder-edged versions of the songs mocked in the movie. Bob Dylan's No. 1 single, Blowin’ in the Wind, which the film's title parodies, is usually interpreted as an anthem for the cultural changes of the era, which included a more permissive moral code as well as left-wing politics.
Guest tries to avoid this potentially more controversial aspect of folk music by focusing on the more commercialized groups who watered down the politics. But if you looked hard enough, it was usually there. In this way, A Mighty Wind is much like the groups it's making fun of. It sanitizes its subject matter in order not to offend.
John Prizer writes from
- May 11-17, 2003