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Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2004
Killing us softly with their songs
Christopher Guest is gradually carving out a niche for himself as the master of the "mockumentary," a faux-documentary that aims to take the piss out of the subject at hand. After starring in and collaborating on the legendary hard-rock satire "Spinal Tap" in 1984, Guest has been busy of late, working with a regular group of improv-comedy specialists and directing "Waiting for Guffman," "Best in Show" and his latest, "A Mighty Wind."
Where "Spinal Tap" skewered the air-headed pretensions of pampered hard-rock arena bands, "A Mighty Wind" locks its sights on the overly earnest, anachronistic ways of the modern American folk-music scene. "What folk-music scene?" I hear you saying, and that's half the joke. Where the fading metal-heads of Spinal Tap found a happy ending with a successful tour of Japan, "A Mighty Wind" shows us bands that are a good three decades-plus past their sell-by date, their happy end being -- shudder -- a live broadcast on a local NPR affiliate station.
The jokes here are at the expense of "revival" concerts, where pop-music moments are embalmed and displayed for our perusal, more as cultural artifacts than vital musical units. It's the great irony of pop culture: always of the moment and youth-oriented, it's impossible for it to age gracefully. Anyone who's seen The Ventures play in Japan will know what I mean.
If Jimi Hendrix was alive he could probably play a gig tomorrow and still sound fresh, but '60s folk -- of the pre-Dylan, vehemently nonelectric variety -- with its quaint, folksy singalong tunes and sensitive, naive romanticism, has gone the way of the hootenanny in this age of 'tude and edge, Eminem and Missy Elliot. Truth be told, it's an easy target, but as he did in "Best in Show," Guest gets so deep inside the scene he's satirizing, that he can't help but love it a little. Half the jokes here are riffs on trivia that only the folk geeks will get.
Not to say that there isn't plenty to chuckle about for the rest of us. As he did in "Spinal Tap," Guest fashions an entirely fictional musical history (not only bands, but their old album jackets, TV performances, bitter break-ups, etc.) for his madeup bands and it makes them appear like the real thing, if a little over the top. The measure of his success is that you could walk into this film not knowing anything about it and be convinced that you were watching an actual documentary . . . at least until the bassist of The Folksmen is asked about the group's "retro" style. "It may be retro now, but it wasn't retro then. To do then, then, was very nowtro." (A joke George W. Bush will surely fail to get.)
"A Mighty Wind" spins its story around a memorial concert for the recently deceased Irving Steinbloom, a promoter known as "the godfather of the folk-music boom." His son, Jonathan (Bob Balaban), a whiny, passive-aggressive type, contacts the faded greats of the era -- The Folksmen, The New Main Street Singers, and Mitch & Micky -- to do a reunion show in New York. The New Main Street Singers are no problem: their career has continued on as a Florida amusement park attraction. The Folksmen are eager enough to re-unite, but squabbling over their set list. Mitch & Micky are a dicier proposition: Their lovey-dovey career crashed and burned in a bitter break-up, with Mitch (Eugene Levy) ending up in a mental hospital after a string of solo albums with titles like "May She Rot in Hell." (The cover art being the wicked punch line to this joke.)
Like any documentary, "A Mighty Wind" takes us behind the scenes, featuring "interviews" with the musicians, and excerpts from rehearsals, backstage dressing rooms, and -- or course -- the performances in which all the cast actually play some horribly twee pieces, like "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow."
Guest maintains the illusion of reality by mirroring an actual documentarian's processes: He shoots close to 50 to 60 hours of footage, which is edited down to 90 minutes, and the resulting off-the-cuff bull-sessions with his "musicians" have a deceptively natural feel.
Guest adopts the tropes of actual documentaries primarily for the purpose of better laughs -- no director knows better the tendency of Americans to play to the camera and self-promote when given half a chance. But he's also showing us how gullible we are in associating a certain format with "fact," when it could just as readily be fiction.
Still, no need to think too deeply with this one, just kick back and grin. Eugene Levy's Syd Barret-inspired acid-casualty daze is priceless, while Fred Willard (another "Spinal Tap" alumnus) nearly steals the show as a failed TV-comedian turned agent who's constantly repeating his lame tag-lines. The best is saved for last, though, with Harry Shearer (the voice of "The Simpsons" ' Mr. Burns), as The Folksmen's bassist, getting a laugh-out-loud gag that will blindside you.
So score another one for Guest. He's still on top of his game.