Somewhere between Elvis and the Beatles lay folk music, and it was like a summer squall -- intense but brief. For a moment in the early 1960s Peter, Paul and Mary, and Joan Baez, and the Kingston Trio and the unplugged Bob Dylan were the nation's biggest popular-music stars; their songs and style were celebrated on TV programs like Hootenanny and Hullabaloo and mimicked in coffeehouses that sprang up from coast to coast as the sanctuaries of folk. But few of its stars endured without changing with the times. Christopher Guest's wonderful new comedy, A Mighty Wind, suggests that folk survived into the 1970s, but I don't remember it as lasting nearly that long; its plaintive lyricism blasted away by rock's hard edge and reborn, for instance, in the rich melodies of Paul McCartney's haunting nostalgia. Folk ruled before Vietnam radicalized a generation. And though Guest's film makes reference to events in the late 1960s, I think by then folk was already a sweet but quaint memory.
Scripted by Guest and Eugene Levy, A Mighty Wind exists to parody the folk music movement and all at once to celebrate it, to recall its innocent humanism for those old enough to remember and to provide a taste for those too young. Following the approach Guest adopted in such earlier work as This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, and Best in Show, A Mighty Wind is a faux documentary about a tribute concert. Jonathan Steinbloom (Bob Balaban in exquisite OCD fidget) stages the concert as a memorial for his recently deceased father, Irving, a "legendary" folk producer. The show, to be broadcast on public television, features three groups: The New Main Street Singers, a contemporary reincarnation of a 1960s "neuftet" (read: The New Christy Minstrels); the Folksmen (Spinal Tap bandmates Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean), who stand in for any of the era's trios, including, it turns out, the Kingston Trio; and Mitch and Mickey (Levy and Catherine O'Hara), a pair of singing lovebirds (a la Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina).
The New Main Street Singers and the Folksmen are played mostly for laughs. One of the original Main Street Singers (Paul Dooley) remains, but he's surrounded by eight newcomers who present themselves like the Osmonds on Prozac. If their smiles were any broader, their faces would shatter. We get details about three. Pigtailed Sissy Knox (Parker Posey) was a teenage runaway who worked as a hooker before she turned to the high of folk music. Group leader Terry Bohner (John Michael Higgins) identifies himself as a former abused child -- his parents made him listen to music he hated. His wife Laurie (Jane Lynch) used to be a porn star -- she specialized in things the other girls wouldn't do. Together the Bohners (go ahead and say that last name out loud) practice a religion that worships colors. The Folksmen haven't performed together or even seen each other in years. As they try to decide upon a song list that includes one about animal noises and another about a diner with a broken neon sign, they debate with great seriousness whether they are retro now or were actually always retro.
The picture presents others characters for our comedic delectation. Lars Olfen (Ed Begley Jr.) is a loony television producer from Sweden who mysteriously peppers his hip patter with bursts of Yiddish. And stage producer Mike LaFontaine (Fred Willard at his zaniest) is a former TV star recalling a Dobie Gillis-era Bob Denver who speaks mostly in reactive phrases he alone thinks are hilarious. Even Mitch and Mickey are introduced as comedic characters. Mickey writes promotional jingles for her husband's business (he sells catheters). Mitch seems brain-damaged (though oddly not from drugs) and struggles with each sentence he speaks like a blocked writer staring at a blank page. Mitch seems so out of touch with other human beings that all responses are off-kilter. When Mickey's husband shows Mitch his model train set, Mitch pauses before uncomfortably, then wistfully, wishing he could see the little miniature town in autumn. This kind of left-field humor is not the mainstay of a Hollywood hooked on pratfalls and bathroom jokes.
The brilliance of A Mighty Wind, though, emerges in the affection Guest and his talented collaborators (the cast wrote most of their own songs) exhibit for the characters and their music. Just as was true in Waiting for Guffman, we start out laughing at the characters, and by the time the big show arrives, we're rooting for them. Say what you will, the music is upbeat, and the performers can really sing. And as we make our way from one group to the next toward Mitch and Mickey's climactic reunion, we find ourselves with bursting hearts, full of memory of youth and innocence and the magic hopefulness of love, all mixed with the heaviness of the inexorable nature of passing time. How often do movies get any richer than that?
- Reunion tour: Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Christopher Guest reassemble The Folksmen for one last performance in Christopher Guest's latest mockumentary, A Mighty Wind.