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Spinal Tap is back! Well, sort of. But that's the first thought that ran through my mind a couple months back when I first saw a trailer for Christopher Guest's latest plunge into the mockumentary genre he has carved out for himself.
Indeed, Mr. Guest has reunited himself with Spinal Tap players Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, again performing as a musical trio. However, instead of Spinal Tap members Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins, and Derek Smalls; the trio appears as The Folksmen: Alan Barrows, Jerry Palter, and Mark Shubb. And just like their name would imply, they're not the aging heavy metal gods they were in the previous film, but rather an aging folk trio who have been brought back together for a public television special.
the Folksmen are joined by two other classic folk bands, The Main Street Singers and Mitch and Mickey, to commemorate the passing of Folk Music pioneer Irving Steinbloom. Irving's son Jonathan, played by Bob Balaban, has decided to honor his father by bringing together some of the big names that Irving helped cultivate for a reunion show. The Folksmen are no challenge to procure; while they no longer play together, they welcome a reunion. The Main Street Singers, on the other hand, have done a little bit of evolving. They're still together, but the majority of the group's members weren't even born at the time of their heyday. the real trick, however, is securing the services of Mitch and Mickey. The duo, played by Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara, had a falling out years ago which led Mickey to drop her musical aspirations while Mitch spiraled into a deep depression. But Jonathan manages to get them together, albeit with some uncertain moments along the way.
A MIGHTY WIND is the third film that Guest has directed in the mockumentary style that he has made into his trademark. The first of his trio, 1996's WAITING FOR GUFFMAN, explored a small-town's talent-deprived community theater. The followup, 2000's BEST IN SHOW, featured a group of dog owners preparing to showcase their pets at the Mayflower Kennel Club's annual pageant. A MIGHTY WIND follows the mentality of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", by using almost the same exact template those other films employed. Same filmmaking style, same titles, same cast. And it works. And it's also apparent that Guest just keeps getting better at his own craft.
Of course, it's hard to say how much of that we owe to the director, and how much we owe to the brilliant cast he manages to wrangle. The stalwarts of his films, folks like Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Fred Willard, and Bob Balaban, are all in prime form here. Levy's Mitch is a neurotic lump who you just can't help but empathize with. O'Hara's Mickey is so lost and lovelorn that you almost wonder why she's in a comedy. Willard, with his impeccable comic timing, comes through again with another over-the-top character, this one a washed-up entertainer that still gratuitously tries to work in catchphrashes that didn't catch on twenty years ago. And Balaban, with his subtle and underrated comic approach, provides for some of the film's most outrageous sequences alongside Michael Hitchcock, another of Guest's regulars. Other notable performances here include Ed Begley, Jr. as a Nordic gent who butchers Yiddish words, John Michael Higgins as the spiritually misguided frontman of the Main Street Singers, and Jane Lynch as his ex-porn star wife. Because of the size of the cast, and the nature of the true ensemble, some actors seem underutilized, most notably Guest regulars Parker Posey (as a schoolteacher who joins the new Main Street Singers) and Deborah Theaker (as Irving's hyperemotional daughter).
A MIGHTY WIND isn't as original as GUFFMAN or as side-splitting as BEST IN SHOW, but it proves to be the best of the three overall. The disadvantage this one may have is the subject matter. Your younger audiences may find dog shows and musical theater entertaining, but what about crotchety old folk musicians? Well, hopefully, considering the good buzz it's received thusfar, it's catching on. I guess you can use the suprise success of the O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? soundrack as a barometer here. The music here, mostly original pieces, is catchy and fun. Written by the cast members themselves, the sound reflects the folk revival sound of the late 1960's, drawing from such real-live groups as the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary. If you don't walk out of the theater humming the tunes you've just heard, well, you've obviously got some issues with appreciation.
Guest has done an amazing job of creating a whole world in which his characters are believable members. In his world, The Folksmen and Mitch and Mickey are indeed household names, and you'd be hard pressed to walk out of this film not wanting to look for some of their records. In this film, more than his others, the ensemble is greatly balanced. The only story that seems to take over, almost on its own, is the story of Mitch and Mickey. It may even leave you wishing for more at its not-so-happy-go-lucky end.
Much like its predecessors, A MIGHTY WIND refrains from basic jokes and rather culls its humor from interaction and audacity. These people are funny, but not because they mean to be. Occasionally, he has the good mind to throw in a sight gag or a zinger of a one-liner, but the comedy is well-balanced with only a smattering of the lowbrow.
Is this the last of Guest's mockumentaries? Some might feel that he has reached his peak here and should leave it as it is. On the other hand, if he has proven anything, it's that he keeps constantly improving the little things to make his films overall better. At this point, I'd welcome another, and would be interested to see just what unlikely pop-culture phenomenon he chooses to exploit the next time.
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