Behind the music
Christopher Guest takes on popular folk music of the early ‘60s
Although the Popcorn Man may not be doing the Big Grin for A Mighty Wind, there’s still a smile on his seemingly straight face. How could it be otherwise? The latest mockumentary from Christopher Guest and company (Waiting for Guffman, Best of Show, etc.) may not add up to much, but it’s still a lot of fun—and its silliness may have a sneaky edge to it just the same.
This time Guest and friends are doing a send-up of the “Folk Era” in popular music and doing it once again as a spoof within a spoof. A Mighty Wind pretends to be a documentary about the staged reunion of some folk music “stars” from the early 1960s, and as such it pokes fun at both a pop music specialty of the past and the pseudo-nostalgic promotions of same in the contemporary media—which in this particular case include “public television” in some of its more fatuous modes.
The fans of the previous films who’ve been looking forward to this one will not be disappointed. The “Folksmen” trio (Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer) are to folk music what Spinal Tap (same actors) was to heavy metal—facetiously self-absorbed, blithely dysfunctional, inept in comically gifted ways. The New Main Street Singers (John Howard Dale, Jane Lynch, Parker Posey, etc.) are zesty parodies of the sort of squeaky-clean, high-energy folk groups that are already unconscious parodies of themselves.
Best of all, there’s Mitch and Mickey (or is it Mickey and Mitch?), an erstwhile folk duo with a romantic legend all their own and a near-psychotic backstory to their off-stage relationship. The Folksmen lead the way with the film’s best comedic musical moments, but the mutual incomprehension of Mickey and Mitch provides the film with its chief deep-dish caricatures and the fullest embodiment of the self-blinding egotism that may be the true subject, here and elsewhere, of Guest and co-writer Levy.
At least one folk music historian has complained of the film’s neglect of the political aspects of the folkie phenomenon, and indeed viewers under the age of 40 might never guess that the real-life contemporaries of the film’s characters would have included the likes of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and assorted left-wing emulators of Woody Guthrie and Big Bill Broonzy. But if A Mighty Wind mostly ignores folk music’s links to social protest and the civil-rights and antiwar movements, the absence of politics in Guest’s menagerie of self-absorbed show-biz egos may be an obliquely political comment in its own right.
Indeed it’s intriguing to consider A Mighty Wind as a humorously sorrowful take on the fallout of the so-called Swingin’ Sixties, which reveals itself here in ill-concealed resentments, unmoored and perplexed egos, and repressed rage that seems to paralyze the emotions of some of the characters. O’Hara, Levy, and the passive-aggressive Folksmen all do inspired work with stuff like that, and maybe the Popcorn Man should be doing the Big Grin after all.