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— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

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When folk music producer Irving Steinbloom died last year, America mourned, and we were glued to our sets two weeks later when the big reunion tribute show aired on PBN. Now documentarian Christopher Guest takes us behind the memories and shows us what really happened during those two tumultuous weeks.

Behind the Music

Mitch and Micky reunite with the Monsters of Folk
Mitch and Micky reunite with the Monsters of Folk

Of course, Steinbloom doesn’t exist and Guest isn’t a documentarian but a comedian known for his “mockumentaries.” It’s no coincidence that Guest also had a leading role in This is Spinal Tap. In fact A Mighty Wind reunites the key members of Spinal Tap (Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer) as The Folksmen in this freakishly wholesome alternate universe.

The Folksmen were just one of Steinbloom’s discoveries. There was also a 9-tet called The Main Street Singers, and the guitar-and-autoharp duet known as Mitch and Mickey.

Guest’s mockumentary introduces us to each of these groups, and gives us a “behind the music” look at their early days and their modern faces. The Main Street Singers were reborn as The New Main Street Singers, who now play at amusement parks. Mitch and Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara) were the romantic poster couple of the folk scene, but their tumultuous breakup sent Mitch into a suicidal funk.

Written on the Wind

The characters have talent, but so do the actors who play them. All of the songs were written by cast members or composer C.J. Vanston, and all of them were performed by the cast. The songs sound passably good. They’re written to sound genuine. But they also have another layer of subtle humor, whether it’s mixed metaphors, unintended double entendres, or just a little fun at the expense of folk music clich├ęs.

The movie follows not just the musicians but the producers, publicists, and managers who are involved in making the reunion show happen. Bob Balaban, Fred Willard, and Sherri Anne Cabot stand out as the overly cautious producer, the crass and oblivious manager of the New Main Street Singers, and a ditzy publicist who doesn’t really like folk music.

The Guestbook

In all of his mockumentaries, Guest chooses niche subject areas, like dog breeding or local theater (Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman), where rising to the top is achievable by everyday folks. The essence of Guest’s jokes is that, in these types of endeavors, even great success can’t make you cool.

Sometimes this approach to humor can appear mean. Anyone who really was earnest about, say, local theater, might feel humiliated by Guest’s arguably derogatory jokes. But a recent academic survey of humor (in the news as “the world’s funniest joke revealed”), found that one of the key factors in a funny joke is a character who looks stupid or foolish. So Guest has his tapped into a successful formula, both in theory and in practice.

In A Mighty Wind Guest has softened his edge. He now allows his characters a modicum of talent and vulnerability, and we can sympathize with them when we’re not laughing at them. They’re still uncool and they say things that sound dumb, as we all do, but we recognize there’s something sincere underneath. That makes A Mighty Wind Guest’s best film yet.