by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I picked out a movie from our recent haul of closeout DVD’s from Vons that I’d been particularly interested in seeing when it first came out but had somehow missed until now: A Mighty Wind, a 2003 “mockumentary” from director and co-writer (with Eugene Levy) Christopher Guest that was billed as doing for (or to) folk music what This Is Spinal Tap — also co-written by Guest — had done for (or to) heavy metal. It does and it doesn’t: though it’s a wonderfully amusing movie the humor is a lot more gentle and less savage than that of Spinal Tap, which I suspect is because Guest simply likes folk music better than he does heavy metal and as a result he made fun of it in a much more sensitive and loving way — which isn’t all good or all bad: it just makes the two films quite different. Whereas Spinal Tap is a zany, ludicrous comedy about a group of people the filmmakers consider utterly ridiculous, A Mighty Wind is an easygoing send-up whose biggest target, in a way, is the whole idea of “folk music” as a genre. When asked about the growing popularity of folk music in the late 1950’s, Louis Armstrong said, “Ain’t no kind of music but folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song!”
A Mighty Wind begins with a mock newscast announcing the death of Irving Steinbloom (1920-2003), a veteran folk music manager, concert promoter and record-company owner (the character seems to have been based on Pete Seeger’s long-time manager Harold Leventhal), and the central plot premise is the effort of Steinbloom’s son Jonathan to reunite the three biggest groups in his dad’s stable — the Folksmen, the New Main Street Singers and “America’s folk sweethearts,” Mitch and Mickey — for a tribute concert at New York’s Town Hall. The New Main Street Singers (who are pretty obviously parodied from the New Christy Minstrels — whom I saw in concert at Lake Tahoe with my father in 1966 and liked without having any idea that the original Christy Minstrels had been a 19th century group until I saw the 1939 biopic Swanee River, with Don Ameche as Stephen Foster and Al Jolson as E. P. Christy, whose Christy’s Minstrels had introduced many of Foster’s biggest hits) were a spinoff from the original Main Street Singers, a 1960’s pop-folk ensemble whose founder, George Menschell (Paul Dooley), recalled putting his original five-piece group together with the four-member Clapper Family after jamming with them at a hootenanny (a word I haven’t heard used seriously in decades!) and deciding to form a nine-piece group, what he called a “neuftet.”
The Folksmen — Alan Barrows (Christopher Guest), Mark Shubb (Harry Shearer) and Jerry Palter (Michael McKean) — were equally obviously patterned on the real-life Kingston Trio: same instruments (banjo, guitar and bass), same wretchedly preppy stage outfits, same penchant for pop-folk tunes including novelties like “Old Joe’s Place” (whose lyrics, among other things, warn you that there’s a hearse parked outside waiting in case anything goes that wrong with the food) and, we’re told, got together when college buddies Alan and Mark, who sang tenor and bass, respectively, needed someone in the middle and ran into Jerry at a folk club. They also recall that they were signed to Steinbloom’s Folktown Records, the hip label everyone wanted to be on, but were later demoted to the cheaper subsidiary Folktone — with worse distribution (“no distribution at all, actually”) and no spindle hole in the center of the records (“they kind of wobbled on top of the spindle, but if you cut your own hole you’d have a pretty good product”).
Mitch [Cohen] and Mickey [Devlin] (Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara) seem to have been parodying the real-life folk duo Ian and Sylvia, with a bit of Sonny and Cher as well; billed as “the sweethearts of folk music,” they became especially famous for the song “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow,” in which they took a hesitation beat towards the end and actually kissed on stage before finishing the song. By the time they made their last album they were defiantly no longer the happy lovebirds they’d been projecting in their publicity; a mock interviewee who witnessed their final recording sessions recalled Mickey throwing things at Mitch — mike stands, mikes, chairs, anything she could grab — while Mitch just sat back and masochistically took it all. Mitch put out two solo albums after the breakup, one of which showed him in a straitjacket while the other had him in a graveyard posing in front of a mock tombstone (an idea I suggest Guest got from the cover of Phil Ochs’ album Rehearsals for Retirement) and contained song titles that sounded like veiled or not-so-veiled threats to murder Mickey. Mickey, in turn, quit the music business and settled down to a suburban housewife’s existence as Mrs. Leonard Crabbe, wife of the CEO of a company that made catheters (Mr. Crabbe is played by an actor with the almost totally appropriate name Jim Piddock).
The New Main Street Singers, of which Menschell is the only member who was also in the first Main Street Singers, were organized by manager Mike LaFontaine (Fred Willard), a former TV sitcom star who’d been trying to make it as a stand-up comedian with material Guest and Levy probably had a lot of fun making so deliberately lame, and are fronted by a couple, Terry and Laurie Bohner (John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch), whose aw-shucks, good-natured demeanor hides the fact that when they met Laurie was making porn movies for ex-Main Street Singer Chuck Weisman (Keva Rosenfeld) at his “Three Wisemans’ Sex Shop” in San Francisco until he and his brothers/partners were busted for “something involving benwa balls.” Both Terry and Laurie are “witches in nature’s colors,” making preposterous statements about the human condition like Terry’s, “This is not an occult science. This is not one of those crazy systems of divination and astrology. That stuff’s hooey, and you’ve got to have a screw loose to go in for that sort of thing. Our beliefs are fairly commonplace and simple to understand. Humankind is simply materialized color operating on the 49th vibration. You would make that conclusion walking down the street or going to the store” — and when they’re about to perform on stage they get centered by making an hilarious prayer to various colors.
The concert is backed by Lars Olfen (Ed Begley, Jr.), executive with the “Public Broadcasting Network” — who doesn’t mind that not many people under 30 have heard of any of these acts because not many people under 30 watch public television anyway — who agrees to air the concert live. There are the usual conflicts between people who haven’t been involved with each other for ages — including a nice rehearsal sequence in an upstate New York farm which I suspect was inspired by the genuine folk-music documentary The Weavers: Wasn’t That A Time, which showed the Weavers rehearsing for their last reunion concerts (in 1980, produced by the real Harold Leventhal) on member Pete Seeger’s upstate New York farm — and the biggest problems involve Mitch and Mickey: Mickey is a bored suburban housewife but with no particularly burning desire to return to the stage, and Mitch is a barely functional psychological basket case who talks in halting tones and seems to be living on psychotropic drugs. At the climax of the film Mitch wanders off in the middle of the tribute concert, just 10 minutes before he’s supposed to go on, and Jonathan Steinbloom signals to the Folksmen to keep going — and they launch into an extended rap introducing a song they sing about the Spanish Civil War, only Mitch turns up while they’re still talking and Jonathan cuts them off before they have a chance to begin the song.
Mickey is furious with him until he brings her a perfect rose he found for her while he was out, and the two go on — and there’s some quite good suspense editing as director Guest keeps us on the edge of our seats as to whether Mitch and Mickey will do the famous climactic kiss on their big hit song. There’s also an epilogue, billed as “six months later,” in which [spoiler alert!] the New Main Street Singers get a TV series called Supreme Folk in which they play the members of the Supreme Court (they are America’s most powerful judges by day and still play folk music by night; Mickey agrees to appear with her husband at medical conventions, holding forth from his company’s booth with a song advertising its wares; and the Folksmen continue to play amusement parks, parties and other gigs at which they’re basically not listened to — though with a difference: bass singer Mark Stubb has gone through gender-reassignment surgery and is now a woman, though still singing the lowest part on all their songs. Though the title song — performed simultaneously by all three groups as the finale of their big TV show — is vaguely political (its sentiments about equality and freedom pretty obviously inspired by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”), for the most part the folk music A Mighty Wind lampoons is the safe, bland Top 40-aimed folk of the Kingston Trio and the New Christy Minstrels, not the edgy, political folk of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger in the previous generation and Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton and Phil Ochs in the 1960’s.
Adding a character based on Dylan or Joan Baez and having that person rail against the commercialism and lack of political engagement of the other performers would have made A Mighty Wind an even funnier movie than it is, but it’s still a delightful movie — and for once the “additional scenes” (they don’t call them “deleted scenes”) on the DVD genuinely add to the disc’s entertainment value instead of just hanging there as curiosities. Among them are a press conference announcing the reunion show at which, asked how they feel about rap and hip-hop, Mitch Cohen says rap is “a second cousin to folk” and Mark Stubb calls rap “nothing but folk music with the melody removed and a lot of profanity thrown in,” and a great interview with the Folksmen in which they say that all their most successful LP’s had one-word titles ending in “-ing” but with the “g” removed and replaced with an apostrophe — Hitchin’, Ramblin’, Wishin’, Pickin’ — and their commercial downfall began when they broke faith with the audience and released an album called Saying Something, a two-word title with the final “g”’s in both words left on. (There was a real-life parallel to this, not in folk but in the jazz world; when Prestige Records released the albums Miles Davis had recorded for them in a marathon session he booked in 1956 to finish his commitment to them so he could move to the major Columbia label, they gave them similar titles to the fictitious albums by the Folksmen: Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’ and Steamin’, stretching — or should I say “stretchin’”? — their release schedule to 1961 so Miles had “new” material on Prestige five years after he’d stopped recording for them.) There are also complete song performances from the faked film clips of the groups as supposedly seen on TV in the 1960’s (often with younger actors playing the members) and a segment supposedly representing what the PBN telecast of the final concert looked like.