A Mighty Wind
directed by Christopher Guest
(Warner Bros., 2003)

Jonathan Steinbloom has given himself an impossible task on an even more impossible deadline: bring to the Town Hall stage three folk acts who haven't played together -- or in some cases spoken to one another -- for decades. Can Steinbloom (Bob Balaban) do it? Yes, but only with the aid of A Mighty Wind.

A Mighty Wind is not director Christopher Guest's third film, though one might think that after all the comparisons to his Waiting for Guffman and Best of Show. His career dates to 1971, but it didn't really take off until he co-wrote and played Nigel Tufnel in 1984's This Is Spinal Tap. The same year, he began a stint on Saturday Night Live, where he played, among other things, a member of the folk trio the Folksmen. Now the Folksmen are back, slated to perform at Steinbloom's concert -- a tribute to his father, Irving, a noted folk-artist agent who recently passed away.

On the bill with them are two even more tenuous acts, the New Main Street Singers and Mitch & Mickey, a guy-girl duo whose romantic breakup was as bitter as their professional parting.

Using the same pseudo-documentary style that marked Guffman and Show, Guest walks us briskly through the bands' personal and professional histories, stopping just long enough on the way to update us on Steinbloom's progress and turn on its head just about every '50s and '60s folk-music cliche ever devised. The lampooning gets an early start, with footage of a Folksmen Reunion Bar-B-Q, during which Mark Shubb, Jerry Palter and Allan Barrows (Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Guest, looking like a cross between Tom Paxton and Larry Fine) recall their early successes -- followed by a fall to a label that didn't even put holes in the middle of their records. But "it was all quality material" they assure us, and who could doubt them?

Equally entertaining in a much more annoying way are the New Main Street Singers, led by Terry and Laurie Bohner (John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch), a squeaky-clean couple whose facade seems perfect until Laurie recalls her rise through the adult-entertainment industry, culminating in a starring role in the movie Not So Tiny Tim. It's the only thing in the film that can make Terry drop his eyes from the camera -- a technique Guest has perfected.

The real dramatic conflict is supplied by Mitch (Eugene Levy, who co-wrote the film) and Mickey (Catherine O'Hara), as all of folkdom -- and Steinbloom -- watch to see if they can not only still play but recapture the saccharine quality of their romantic heyday. Complicating matters is Mickey's marriage to catheter magnate/model train enthusiast Leonard Crabbe (Jim Piddock), whose company, Sure-Flo, is named in honor of his mother, and whose model train village, Crabbeville, provides one of film's funniest sideshows.

But what ultimately makes Wind work is the music, written by the pseudo-folk artists themselves and performed with a gusto that captures the best and worst of folk concerts then and now. (Don't miss Parker Posey's annoying bounciness as Sissy Knox of the New Main Street Singers. It's proof Guest and Levy know whereof they spoof.)

At the top of the song list are the much-performed "Never Did No Wanderin'," which lampoons the folk-circuit's obsession with songs about rambling, and "Barnyard Symphony," which seems designed to drive a well-deserved stake through the heart of audience-participation songs. Just as good, if given less screen time, are "Potato's in the Paddy Wagon," "The Good Book Song" and "A Mighty Wind" itself, which offers a most-fitting finale.

One of the tests of good satire, it's said, is that the targets never see the bull's-eyes they're wearing. It would be great fun to be able to go back to the early '60s and plant those songs in the folk circuit just to see how many of them go unnoticed as parodies.

Or you can settle for watching A Mighty Wind. It's a fallback position that leaves little to be desired.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 27 March 2004

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