The year was 1984, and Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest and Michael McKean were riding high on the popularity of the heavy-metal spoof This Is Spinal Tap -- which many credit as inventing the "mockumentary" movie genre. In a bit of polite irony, the trio posed for a Rolling Stone article.
"We were being shot for Rolling Stone as the Tap guys and as ourselves, and when we looked at the Polaroid of ourselves, one of us said, 'Wow, we look like a bunch of washed-up folkies," Shearer recalls over lunch at Bayona. "And when we were being interviewed for the article, the guy said, 'Well, what are you guys gonna do next?' And Michael, drawing on that recollection, said, 'I dunno, we might do a folk trio.'"
Sure enough, after Shearer and Guest joined the cast of Saturday Night Live that fall and welcomed McKean as host, they hatched The Folksmen. And, like their Spinal Tap brethren, they have taken their acoustic act on the road over the years. So it seemed only natural when Guest -- who'd previously directed the hilarious mockumentaries Waiting for Guffman (spoofing community theater) and Best in Show (dog shows) -- settled on the easily tweakable folk-music genre for his new film, A Mighty Wind. The movie, which has opened elsewhere to critical acclaim, opens at Canal Place on Friday.
Shearer has been working with Guest and McKean in various projects over the past two decades, including the Spinal Tap and Folksmen shows. McKean appeared in Shearer's 2001 film, Teddy Bears Picnic, while Shearer composed music for Guffman. This past February, Guest and McKean joined Shearer for a staged reading of his latest project -- a musical about the life of J. Edgar Hoover.
"So we're always really working with each other," explains the 59-year-old Shearer, a Los Angeles resident who, with his wife, singer/pianist Judith Owen, owns a house in the French Quarter. "The only difference each time is who's wearing the director's hat. When we did Spinal Tap (directed by Rob Reiner), we all wrote the script. This time it was Chris and Eugene (Levy).
"We've been doing the Folksmen already, so, to be absolutely metaphorical, at the time this was money in the bank, because there was no money. We knew these guys."
A Mighty Wind continues the ensemble work that Guest began with Guffman; Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey, Fred Willard, Larry Miller, Bob Balaban, Michael Hitchcock and Don Lake have appeared in all three films. The three films are structured in story alone -- all the dialogue is improvised, a la Spinal Tap.
Even more impressive was the decision to allow all of the performers to play their own music and record the songs live. "To forgo the safety net of pre-recording for the sake of the excitement and the fun of a live performance was a big leap of trust," Shearer says.
In the band, Shearer is Mark, an Amish beard-wearing bass player who'd met one of the other members in college where they formed the duet the Twobadours. After Mark's wife -- "the very first animal acupuncturist in Minnesota" -- passed away, Mark became a freelance tax preparer "not helping people avoid paying taxes so much as he's helping bombers not get bought," Shearer points out.
In folk music, Guest has chosen another relatively easy cultural target to skewer, but Shearer is quick to acknowledge that as he's gone along, Guest is getting kinder and gentler with each work. While the pretentiousness of the music and the ridiculousness of the '60s fashion are ripe for plucking, Guest has also constructed a tender love story between Levy and O'Hara as the estranged folk act Mitch and Mickey.
"There was a very deliberate attempt in this film to create a more emotional story that was to serve as the spine for the movie," says Shearer, "and that's the Eugene Levy/Catherine O'Hara storyline. Gene said that when Catherine looked at the script and the storyline, she said, 'Ooookay, doesn't look like there's a lotta laughs here!' But as you'll see, she deals brilliantly with it."
While the film is loaded with love, it's devoid of the politics that played a part in the folk movement of the '60s -- a criticism put forth in a recent New York Times piece by David Hadju, author of Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Mimi Baerz Farina and Richard Farina. To which Shearer replies, so what?
"People tend to romanticize the folk era," says Shearer, who adds that folk icons Peter, Paul & Mary were best known for apolitical hits such as "Leaving on a Jet Plane," "Lemon Tree," and "Puff the Magic Dragon."
"Not exactly calls to the ramparts," he says.
"In retrospect it looks like a more political movement than it was because Dylan came out of it, and because some people actually did go down and sing in Selma and did the freedom marches and stuff. But most of them, certainly the people we're depicting in this movie, were the people who sat around in New York City and got postcards from their friends in Selma.
"It's just that this is what we thought was funny."
- These go to three: Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Christopher Guest play a mild bunch of folk musicians in the upcoming musical comedy A Mighty Wind.