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Spotlight on: Christopher Guest's A Mighty Wind

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Christopher Guest's A Mighty Wind

After the classic Waiting for Guffman and the fiasco of Best in Show, I was torn in my desire to see A Mighty Wind. As small movies never come to my neck of the woods I knew I would have to wait for it to come out on video. To tide me over, I got the soundtrack, which served to both satisfy me and ease my suspicions about its quality.

I was both right and wrong. A Mighty Wind is better--much better--than Best in Show but not as good as Waiting for Guffman. When the manager of 1960s folk bands the Folksmen, Mitch & Mickey, and the Main Street Singers dies, his son (Bob Balaban) organizes a tribute concert to his memory. The trouble comes in reassembling the bands again, particularly Mitch of Mitch & Mickey, who has spent the last several years in a mental hospital.

One of the downsides of A Mighty Wind is held firmly in the role of Mitch played by Eugene Levy. His performance is masterful, but it appears almost to be in the wrong film. If one truly empathizes with what his character has gone through, it is saddening. Yet, it is being played for laughs. And, as it is laughs I expect from this film, this makes it unsuccessful. I am unsure whether to laugh or cry.

Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer (the former members of Spinal Tap) are excellent together as the Folksmen. They have mastered this kind of music just as they did heavy metal. Additionally, their chemistry is still palpable. Shearer and Guest each mug a bit, but this is to be expected; it is a mockery of the styles of these performers, after all.

John Michael Higgins (who played Michael McKean's ostentatious partner in Best in Show) and Jane Lynch (Jennifer Coolidge's lesbian love interest in the same film) of the New Main Street Singers come across the best as they play it straight and let the laughs come from their characters naturally. Of course, I found an instant laugh in the irony that the two most dramatic gay characters from Best in Show are married to each other in A Mighty Wind.

Balaban (the musical director in Guffman) has a fun part as the son of the dead manager. His dislike of folk music does not hold back his interest in organizing this tribute. Balaban is a master of frustration; his eyes show it all, and reactions are his specialty. His pairing with Michael Hitchcock as Hitchcock attempts to explain all the technicalities of a television broadcast in the funniest scene in the film.

A Mighty Wind is a really good look at the characters in the folk community and shows that the actors have not lost their touch. Making another Guffman is out of the question now with so many great actors at their disposal, but as long as Guest and company keep making movies that are touching and funny, I'll still be right there watching. Improvisation is an art that is showing a resurgence in the form of these movies and the television show "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?" and I, for one, am glad to see it happen.

Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, A Mighty Wind

Christopher Guest and company are known for their abilities to take beloved institutions and make hilarious fun of them. Most of these films have layers that often go unnoticed. This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, and A Mighty Wind are all musicals in some form. These songs have to be written and performed and must mirror the styles they mock while retaining a love for the form. Thus the soundtracks to these films stand on their own.

A Mighty Wind's collection of seventeen folk songs take the archetypal styles of the 1960s folk period replicate them marvelously. Guest has been making fake folk songs since his days with the National Lampoon (two good examples can be found on Gold Turkey).

"When You're Next to Me" by Mitch & Mickey is a beautiful love song that works because it retains its beauty in spite of the humor of the surrounding film. It could easily become a standard, if allowed to survive out of context. However, in context, it takes on an entirely new layer with the characters.

The different bands each have a distinctive style that is captured with panache: the love ballads of Mitch & Mickey, the light and airy ditties of the New Main Street Singers, and the mixture of death and humor of the Folksmen. Arranged in such a way that you don't get tired of one style before going on to the next, they make for a full experience that can be repeated multiple times. Songs by the Folksmen blending into those of the New Main Street Singers and Mitch & Mickey, it feels a bit like the concert that ends the film, complete with the final title song sung by all three bands.

I especially like that the filmmakers were not afraid to put two versions of the same song on the album as the versions of "Never Did No Wanderin'" by the Folksmen and the New Main Street Singers are different enough that I didn't notice on first listen.

Folk fans needn't feel that their beloved music is being jabbed injudiciously. The actors are all accomplished musicians so these songs are quality examples of the form. A Mighty Wind's soundtrack is at least as entertaining as the film, without the flaws that it has. And you'll never hear the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" the same way again.

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