The newest film from Christopher Guest and his ensemble - a group of actors and film-makers with whom he has been working for more than a decade - follows in the footsteps of his earlier successes This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting For Guffman, and Best In Show. Like the earlier films, it is a "mocumentary, " a form Guest & Co (and Spinal Tap director Rob Reiner) have raised to new heights.
The form is that of a documentary, complete with fixed-camera, talking-head interviews, "fly-on-the-wall" points of view and a fair amount of jerky, hand-held camera work. But the subjects of this attention are fictional characters and situations, created to exploit the humor implicit in the original through parody.
Written by Guest and comedian and actor Eugene Levy, the script reportedly was more of an "outline" of the action and background about the characters rather than the exact dialogue and actions that comprise a standard film-script. Guest then encouraged his actors to improvise their scenes on the spot. By combining and refining these spontaneous performances into the filmed scenes, Guest manages to give the film a quirky, "stranger than fiction" edge.
The characterizations are expert. This ensemble of talented actors bring the idiosyncratic crowd of show-business has-beens and want-to-bes to life with a deft touch that is as sympathetic as it is penetrating. The revelations of the vanities, preoccupations and self-deceptions of the various personalities are incisive, but the whole dissection is done with such gentle compassion that it never becomes painful or mean-spirited.
The story revolves around a memorial concert planned to honor folk impresario Irving Steinbloom, being organized by his son, Jonathan (Bob Balaban). The concert will reunite some of the legendary folk-groups the elder Steinbloom brought to public attention three decades earlier. The groups are The Folksmen (based on the Kingston Trio/Chad Mitchell Trio model); the New Main Street Singers (based on groups including New Christy Minstrels, the Rooftop Singers and others) and the duo of Mitch and Mickey (based on pairs like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, or Ian and Sylvia).
The film "documents" the initial contacts with and between the artists, the final days leading up to concert and the concert itself. The complications that arise from this event and the various inter-personal dynamics that come into play create a story that careens from the wild humor of a Monty Python sketch, to the non-sequiturian verbal absurdity of Bob & Ray, to the character comedy of Lily Tomlin, all done with an originality and wit that make them fresh and compelling.
Moreover, these pyrotechnic bursts of humor are not simply displays for their own sake. They reveal in their various ways some universal human strivings and failings, excesses of ego, misunderstandings and inexplicable changes of the heart with which audiences can easily identify.
Typical is the relationship between Mitch and Mickey - once the romantic darlings of the Folk-Music Scene. Their break-up led Mitch into depression, instability and institutionalization, as well as a series of increasingly dark solo albums. Mickey rebounded by becoming a quintissentially bourgeois housewife, married to a self-absorbed, obsessive salesman whose world-view is about as far from the romantic image of Mitch and Mickey as it is possible to get.
The question of what will be generated by the reunion of these two lost souls provides most of the emotional tension and suspense in the film. Mitch is a confused, burnt-out, rootless wanderer, who nevertheless retains some compelling vestiges of his formerly powerful romantic sensitivity. Mickey has created a superficially comfortable, insulated world around herself, but clearly longs to regain something of the "magic" (or the illusion of it) from which she walked away.
The conflicts their re-connection creates for each of them contain some of the wryest comedy as well as some of the most poignant moments in the film, and screenwriter Levy as Mitch, and Guest ensemble regular Catherine O'Hara as Mickey make the most of the situation without ever losing control and falling into caricature.
Most of the characters walk this line. There is The New Main Street Singers' Laurie Bohner (Jane Lynch) a former porn-star turned squeaky-clean folksinger and her ridiculous "new age" spirituality. There is Mark Shubb (Harry Shearer), the self-effacing, diffident Folksmen bass player - with a deeply buried secret. There is the New Main Street Singers' monumentally self-absorbed and clueless agent, Mike LaFontaine (Fred Willard).
Parker Posey appears as Sissy Knox, whose limitless perkiness is a compensation for inner pain. Bob Balaban's Jonathan Steinbloom, together with his siblings Elliot (Don Lake) and Naomi (Deborah Theaker), exhibit all the neuroses of children brought up in the overwhelming shadow of a parent's success.
There is Lars Olfen (Ed Begley Jr.), the Scandinavian-born Public Television producer with an absurd affectation for yiddishisms. There is Laurie's husband Terry Bohner (John Michael Higgins/Cameron Sprague) whose lonely childhood is redeemed by the fantasy he creates in his basement of playing in a folk group - complete with cardboard cut-outs of the other members. But as off-beat as they are, the actors manage to imbue each of the characters with enough recognizable humanity that they are always objects of empathy as well as objects of fun, They are odd - odd as hell some of them - but they are us.
Surprisingly, Guest, Shearer and Michael McKean, as Alan Barrows, Mark Shubb and Jerry Palter - The Folksmen - are the most normal - seeming - of the ensemble. The three played the Hard Rock group Spinal Tap in the Rob Reiner-directed project that launched the whole series, and their antics and "interviews" were a wild send-up of the image of "Rock'n'Roll" culture. Here, their witty, mellow characters take a back seat to the more outrageous extravagances of the others, but they still provide a dry comic undertone to the whole proceeding.
The productions values have a rawness appropriate for a "documentary." The camera work mimics the typical combination of static set-up shots and catch-as-catch-can hand-held footage. The set design is full of pseudo-"found objects" that capture (or in fact create) the spirit of scene.The use of actual locations - the Town Hall Concert Scenes were filmed in Town Hall - also adds to the illusion of that feeling.
Especially well-done are the "vintage" films, that range from "home-movies" to video-clips from imaginary period TV shows on which the various groups appeared. These reproduce the "cheesiness" of the originals unflinchingly and without any trace of a cloying nostalgic glow. The costumes - particularly the Disney-fied Uniforms of The New Main Street Singers, both then and now, and Mike LaFontaine's Polyester Leisure Look - add their own effective subtext.
This being a film about music and musicians, the songs are of course at the heart of it. Most were written by the actors - more or less in character as the performers they portray - and their wonderful nonsense provides accents of absurdity that spark and leaven the narrative and keep the whole thing sailing madly along. They capture the silly indulgences of the style perfectly They go by so fast that is it hard to get a handle on them - just a few words or phrases of several of them is all it is possible to extract on a first viewing.
But from those little samples it is clear that they are small comic gems embedded in the larger work. Given their humor and liveliness, it shows admirable discipline on the part of the film-makers that they didn't rely on them more - even milk them - but were content to "throw them away" as comic asides in the whole context of the film.Mitch and Mickey's romantic anthem The Kiss At the End Of the Rainbow represents what is best about these tunes, deftly evoking both silliness - in this case the laughability of adolescent romantic hyperbole - and underlying that, a touching sincerity that reveals something truly attractive and meaningful.
It is impossible not to compare the several films from this group of people - but the comparisons have to be based primarily on personal tastes. Certainly This Is Spinal Tap has more laugh-out-loud moments than this film. But A Mighty Wind has a grace and style that make it work on more complex levels than those to which the earlier film aspired. In spite of their apparent similarities, it would be hard to arrange these films in order from best to worst, because each has unique elements that succeed on their own terms, in different ways. Each of the films is a rewarding experience, providing entertainment and amusement as well as significant and sometimes even moving insight.
-- Ned Depew