Mighty Wind, A

Reviewed By Collin Souter
Posted 04/20/03 15:27:24

3 stars (Average)

Just what is it about recent revival and/or reunion documentaries about famous folk bands or pop bands of decades past? Why have they become popular all of a sudden? In the past few years, we’ve had Wim Wenders’ “Buena Vista Social Club,” “Down from the Mountain” (The “O brother, Where Art Thou?” companion piece) and last year “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” all of which enjoyed long runs at the arthouses. And now we have, I guess, a parody of such films, Christopher Guest’s “A Mighty Wind,” a comedy about three groups of folk singers from the ‘60s who come together for a reunion concert in honor of the man who signed them, Irving Steinbloom.

But let me get this out of the way, first. Can we stop calling these films “mockumentaries”? They don’t seem to be mocking any kind of documentary that actually exists, unless of course it means that Guest and co. are just mocking their chosen subjects, be they community theater performers or dog show contestants. I would just call them “Christopher Guest comedies,” because nobody makes them quite like he does and with this third installment, he has clearly carved a niche for himself. They just feel less and less like doc-(or mock)-umentaries with every new film.

So, three bands. We have The Folksman, a male trio most famous for a song titled “Eat At Joe’s”, but because they based the song on a damaged neon sign, the title comes out “Ea… A… oh’s.” Alan Barrows (Christopher Guest), Mark Shubb (Harry Shearer), and Jerry Palter (Michael McKean) haven’t seen each other in years and the camaraderie seems to still be there, in spite of some creative differences. Jerry seems to be the most forward-thinking of the bunch while the other two seem to think they should go “retro” by wearing their out-of-fashion clothes to the reunion.

Next, we have The Main Street Singers, led by the Klapper Family parented by a loony couple who practice a religion based solely on colors. The band consists of nine members and have been considered “sell-outs” because of the use of their music on toothpaste commercials. So anal are their recording sessions that they actually have uniforms for practicing, in spite of the fact that nobody wears the same thing. They have also re-named themselves The New Main Street Singers.

Finally, we have Mitch (Eugene Levy) and Mickey (Catherine O’Hara), a lovey-dovey duo who had a major falling-out in the mid’70s and haven’t seen each other since. Mickey has since married a model train enthusiast and Mitch has tried going solo with his off-the-deep-end albums of desperation. Bringing these acts together is one of Steinbloom’s son’s, Jonathan (Bob Balaban), who gives these acts two weeks to rehearse.

If none of this sounds particularly funny (and, granted, a movie review rarely does a comedy justice), it may be because Guest hasn’t found a way to put these bands in situations that would give way to any real big laughs. More often than not, we wait for everyone to say something funny. But rarely do we feel any sort of suspense or tension within any scene. “Waiting For Guffman” worked because, at the last minute, the show’s flamboyant director (played by Christopher Guest) had to step in at the end to play the manly lead. “Best In Show” had that hilarious scene in which Parker Posey’s character, that of the overly-protective-to-the-point-of-psychotic dog owner, had to make a mad dash to the pet store in order to find just the right squeezy toy for her dog.

In “A Mighty Wind,” the characters talk to us, then rehearse and, pretty much, that’s that. The end, where a song mix-up ensues between two of the bands, seems like it should be a tense moment, but it’s too little too late. I do find it a pleasure to watch this cast in action as they improvise(?) many of the talking head moments, but it seems beneath Guest to rest on that laurel alone.

I also had a problem with Eugene Levy’s character, the last character we meet, and who has such an immense and funny build-up to his appearance that he should be the character we laugh with and root for the most. This character has a slow cadence to his speech, seems to have done one too many Flying Willards and hasn’t gotten over the break-up between he and Mickey. But Levy overdoes it. I didn’t see much of a character there, just Levy in a wig and talking funny. Had it been more fleshed-out and maybe played by an unknown, “A Mighty Wind” might have had a worthy center for its ensemble. But it comes off as more of a caricature than a character.

Guest clearly has some kind of appreciation for folk music, since the songs written for the film (all by Guest, Levy, Shearer and McKean) sound so authentic, and frequently funny. But he only seems to be addressing the silly, corny side of folk music while never mentioning or alluding to its political and sociological roots. Folk music played a huge part on the Civil Rights movement and the Women’s movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s and had such a strong social conscience about it that it seems there should be another part to this story that would make it ripe for satire, an element of Guest’s work that is clearly missing here.

Still, “A Mighty Wind” has some hilarious moments. The album covers of Mitch’s solo work had me laughing hardest, as did the argument between the over-organized Bob Balaban and the show’s stage manager. And nobody does blissful ignorance like the great Fred Willard, always the funniest member of the ensemble. And I do enjoy seeing this cast work together, even if the material isn’t quite up to par. Perhaps “A Mighty Wind” can carry the term “mockmumentary” this time around, since it only aspires to mock and not to satirize or examine. Guest and company can always entertain, but they’re even better at doing much, much more.

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