In A Mighty Wind, director Christopher Guest reunites the team from Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman to tell the story (co-written by Eugene Levy) of ’60s-era folk musicians, who, inspired by the death of their former manager, get back on the stage for one concert in New York City’s Town Hall.
Levy and Catherine O’Hara are Mitch and Mickey, once the sweethearts of folk music until their bitter separation; Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer are classic folk trio The Folksmen, and Parker Posey, John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch anchor a color-coordinated, harmonizing “neuftet” – the New Main Street Singers.
Joining the musicians are Bob Balaban, Ed Begley, Jr., Jennifer Coolidge, Paul Dooley, Michael Hitchcock, Don Lake, Larry Miller, Jim Piddock, Deborah Theaker and Fred Willard, who all work to revive folk music in this uniquely touching comedy.
A Mighty Wind 8.0
eyelights: the colourful cast. the vibrant but goofy music.
eyesores: Eugene Levy’s constipated accent.
“In 1971, after the breakup of the Main Street Singers, Chuck Wiseman moved up to San Francisco where he started a retail business with his brothers Howard and Dell, the Three Wisemen’s Sex Emporium. It was very successful for a year until they were sued over something having to do with a box of ben wah balls.”
So, tell me, what do you get when you cross the cast of ‘Best in Show’ with an unplugged version of ‘This is Spinal Tap‘? You guessed it! It’s ‘A Mighty Wind’. At least, that’s probably what the filmmakers expected…
I wish it were so simple. If it were, then we would have a sure-fire winner right out of the gate. Except that ‘A Mighty Wind’, as breezy as it is, isn’t mighty: the music is good, if corny, the cast is stellar, the idea is terrific, but the end result somehow doesn’t soar as high as one might expect, all things considered.
I must admit, however, that, as with ‘This is Spinal Tap’ and ‘Best in Show’, it might be a grower, a film that I will need to watch a few times to absorb all of its richness. For instance, I didn’t really get the others when I first saw them; I found them amusing, but hardly the peak of hilarity. Nowadays, though, I would vouch for both in a blink.
This time, the setting of Christopher Guest’s film is a tribute concert to a legendary folk music promoter who has just passed away. Hi son wants to regroup some of his dad’s most notable acts and bring them together for this special show, to be aired on the Public Broadcasting Channel. His attempts at coordinating the event are filmed for posterity, and feature interviews with other family members, industry insiders and the artists being called upon for the tribute.
As with Guest’s other films, ‘A Mighty Wind’ is mostly about the cast, which features a series of actors that he frequently works with and that have been central to his works of late:
“You could say she was overly protective – I just like to think she cared about me, which she did, a lot. And I was a member of the chess team and whenever we would have chess tournaments I had to wear a protective helmet, I had to wear a football helmet. Now who knows what she was thinking? Maybe she thought that we might have fallen maybe and impaled our heads on a pointy bishop or something, I don’t know.”
- Bob Balaban plays Jonathan Steinbloom, the organiser of the event being held to pay tribute to his father. Balaban is always excellent playing it straight – as he does here, providing glimpses into how schleppy his character could be behind the solemn façade.
“I had a garage band in Stockholm, which was a challenge in its own right, to keep an instrument tuned with that temperature swing. There’s a block warmer for the Volvo in the garage but it’s cold in there in the winter. So we played and I had a hit that you might have heard of. “Hur Är Läget, Lilla Gumman?” which means, “How’s It Hanging, Grandma?” and it was big on the Swedish charts.”
- Ed Begley, Jr. plays Lars Olfen, the television exec who greenlights the tv special, basically financing the show. As a major fan of Steinbloom senior, he gushes over the opportunity to be a part of this once-in-a-lifetime event. I’m not a great fan of Begley, jr. but, as in ‘Best in Show’, he was quite good here.
“Thank God for the model trains, you know? If they didn’t have the model trains they wouldn’t have gotten the idea for the big trains.”
- Jennifer Coolidge plays Amber Cole, a promoter. A complete dunderhead, it’s a wonder how she and her partner (who are in charge of this tribute show) survive in that business. She is vacant, but not nearly as much as Coolidge’s character in ‘Best in Show’. And I could barely recognize her with that tan and unusual accent. Barely.
“There was abuse in my family, but it was mostly musical in nature.”
- John Michael Higgins is Terry Bohner, the frontman of The New Main Street Singers. He was one of the highlights of ‘Best in Show’, and he still delivers here, but he plays it down considerably, leaving the comedy mostly to the others. I found it annoying to see him hold a guitar even though he obviously couldn’t play, but this is justified by a behind the scenes mishap that affected the rest of the show; it was apparently a necessary evil.
“You know, I really don’t have time to explain Stagecraft 101. This show starts in an hour. Now, every… everything is exactly the way you…”
- Michael Hitchcock plays Lawrence E. Turpin, the stage manager of the concert hall. He was far more intense and interesting in ‘Best in Show’, but he has a good moment or two – particularly when he loses it and slaps Balaban.
“I moved away to North Dakota. I tried to get as far away as I could to get the singing out of my head.”
- Don Lake plays the other Steinbloom son. As in ‘Best in Show’, he doesn’t say much and he keeps straight, but I always like seeing him on film – ever since his spoof of Gene Siskel on TV comedy show ‘Bizarre’, I’ve enjoyed him. His character’s great because he patiently waits for the whole show to wrap up; he neither likes music nor his siblings, and he’s just there to be polite.
“I feel ready for whatever the experience is that we will… take with us after the show. I’m sure it will be… an adventure… a voyage on this… magnificent vessel… into unchartered waters! What if we see sailfish… jumping… and flying across the magnificent orb of a setting sun?”
- Eugene Levy plays Mitch. I’m no great fan of Levy’s but I find him amusing at times. However, his Mitch Cohen is one of those occasion where I simply couldn’t do it: his laboured, constipated speech annoyed me and his dazed gaze added to the impression of a caricature more so than a real person. To me, he was a the big downer of the piece.
“I learned to play the ukulele in one of my last films, “Not-So-Tiny Tim””
- Jane Lynch is Laurie Bohner, a new recruit in The New Main Street Singers, having started out as a porn actress. I loved to see Lynch all dolled up and perky, even if it was difficult to imagine her doing adult films. Her character went a little too far into the deep end with her religious beliefs, though, which I thought were too far out to be believable.
(about a map that was left behind) “So you were planning on studying it later, academically or something?”
- Michael McKean is Jerry Palter, one of The Folkmen (along with Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer, properly reunited at last). He plays it relatively straight, but he fits right in with the other two and has good presence.
“We work together very well. It’s almost as like we have one brain that we share between us.”
- Larry Miller plays Wally Fenton, Amber Cole’s business partner. Miller’s moody characters combined with his unpleasant mug have always grated on me, but he was good here. Not nearly as uproarious as in ‘Best in Show’, but he’s a good foil for Coolidge.
(about Mitch) “What are you doing? He could be lying in a ditch – it wouldn’t be the first time.”
- Catherine O’Hara plays Mickey Crabbe, Mitch’s former lover and musical partner. Together they soared the pop charts and were quite a sensation. Now, decades after their separation they try to reconnect long enough to perform at the show together. Personally, I found O’Hara’s take on the character a bit grating, less charming than you’d wish her to be. Between her and Levy, the duo was a real pain in the butt to watch.
“Oh, for work. I’m in the bladder management industry. I sell catheters. I have my own distribution company, Sure Flo Medical Appliances. You may have heard of it. It’s actually named in tribute after my mother, her name was Florence.”
- Jim Piddock plays Leonard Crabbe, Mickey’s current husband. He’s a bit of a stiff, a lame white-collar worker with a penchant for model trains.
“I like to give people a break now. So when I sing, I want to give out what was given to me. And I want to be, you know, a vessel of love and I want to entertain and make people happy.”
- Parker Posey plays Sissy Knox, one of The New Main Street Singers. She was once a troubled youth who now loves to uplift people with her singing. Why she had a massively smaller part than in ‘Best in Show’, I don’t know, but she barely shows up here.
(about some defective LPs) “If you punched a hole in them, you’d have a good time.”
- Harry Shearer gets a lot more lines than in ‘This is Spinal Tap’ as Mark Shubb, The Folkmen’s bass player. He’s rather amusing, is slightly ethereal.
“I worked some bills with a few Folkies, you know – “Put ’em in a cell with a long hose on him, put ’em in a cell with a long hose on him!” I used to say “If he’s got a long enough hose, he’s gonna have a lot of friends in the shower room.” Folk audiences hated that joke.”
- Fred Willard is as obnoxious here as he was in ‘Best in Show’ as Mike LaFontaine, The New Main Street Singers’ manager. He’s not nearly as funny, though, perhaps because what worked in the previous film was his juxtaposition with Jim Piddock. But he’s nonetheless amusing at times.
I liked the way most of this developed, aside from the “big drama” with Mitch right before going onstage for his performance with Mickey. That seemed clichéd as all get out and it wrapped up in an unsatisfying fashion. Furthermore, Mitch and Mickey’s resulting performance was to be expected, and I was surprised to find that Mickey’s husband was smiling all along in the crowd.
I should also point that, while the concert was mercifully short (it’s not a musical genre that I’ve taken a liking to), it wasn’t filmed as a montage of songs. Instead, the songs were performance in full, giving us the impression that only six songs were performed by the three groups altogether – including the finale with all of them on stage. This seems a bit short for a tribute concert that people paid for and that is being broadcast on television.
Now, I understand the logistics of having to write many songs for just a small montage, but this particular approach felt fake – there’s no way this show would have come as shown. It’s a little like that one-song Kiss “concert” in ‘Detroit Rock City“, you can’t help but wonder why anyone would bother to go see that. Basically, to me, even though it was nice to get complete songs, this segment seemed like rip-off. As far as I’m concerned, they could have done a montage and shown off the unedited performances on the DVD’s special features.
Anyway, given the phenomenal success of ‘Best in Show’, one could easily excuse writer-director Christopher Guest for tapping into the same well, dishing out yet another mockumentary. If only he had had as much inspiration this time around we would have had a minor classic on our hands. As it stands, however, ‘A Mighty Wind’ is a fun film that leaves one wanting. It’s certainly worth seeing, but it unquestionably lacks the magic of his greatest works.
Date of viewing: June 1, 2013