Like Christopher Guest’s other mockumentaries (Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show), A Mighty Wind follows a collection of outsiders who are drawn together by their participation in a communal art form. However, as in the previous films (and the Rob Reiner directed This is Spinal Tap), the characters are less than adept at their “art,” and less than aware of their own mediocrity.
In this case, the art is folk music and, as in the previous milieus, the scene attracts its share of obsessive oddballs, a cross section of likable nobodies who make us laugh at the oddball in us all. For most of Guest’s characters, in all of these films, performance has a redemptive quality. However, while the performances in A Mighty Wind may temporarily redeem the character’s neuroses and failings, the film also erases folk music’s history of social protest and political critique.
What makes Guest and co-writer Eugene Levy’s comedies so appealing is that they treat their oddballs with dignity, not mockery, even when their subjects are at their most ridiculous — which is perhaps why both reject the “mockumentary” label. The characters in all of the Guest and Levy films are endearing precisely because of their willingness to expose themselves to ridicule in the pursuit of an idealized public moment in which they can transcend their ordinariness.
The big public moment in A Mighty Wind is a concert in New York City’s Town Hall in honor of recently departed folk promoter Irving Steinbloom (Stuart Luce). Organized by Irving’s fastidious son, Jonathan (Bob Balaban), the concert brings back his dad’s three favorite groups, The Folksmen, Mitch and Mickey, and the revamped New Main Street Singers. A Mighty Wind “documents” the concert participants as they rehearse, prepare, and jaw about their past glories. Ex-lovebirds Mitch Cohen (Levy) and Mickey Crabbe (Catherine O’Hara), who had a romance of Sonny-and-Cher-like proportions and a number of hit albums in the ’60s, are particularly poised for a post-reunion comeback. Through the usual “documentary” conventions — interviews with folk historians, record producers, recording engineers, and the musicians and their business associates — the story of Mitch and Mickey is retold, leading up to the big moment when they are reunited on stage.
In its focus on these reunited ’60s folkies Wind engages in that most virulent form of nostalgia: ’60s-itis. Yet, the film differs from many other representations of the decade that tend toward cutesy sentimentalism (The Wonder Years and its bastard offspring Oliver Beene) or self-importance (like much of Oliver Stone’s work). The film does the ’60s thing without resorting to the familiar territory of the perils of the nuclear family in the nuclear age, or the clash of the nuclear age with the Age of Aquarius. The domestic and political tensions of the decade are largely ignored in favor an idealized vision of the music, the performances, and the eccentricities of the characters.
Despite their roots in the ’60 folk scene, the Wind musicians would probably feel more at home on Lake Woebegone than in Greenwich Village. The Folksmen sing a down-home number about a diner (called “Oe’s” because of its faulty neon sign) that would fit perfectly in an episode of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion. And instead of revolution, Mitch and Mickey sing about… you guessed it, love. The musicians, all insular and self-absorbed, had and have no inkling of the broader reach of their genre. Guest, himself a folk musician in the ’60s, has not talked about the social and political dimensions of the genre in interviews about the film, but both he and Levy have asserted that the heart of Wind is Mitch and Mickey’s romance.
It is in the divorced duo’s hokey, winsome reminisces that there is an antidote to the film’s nostalgia — Wind acknowledges that their romance, like the decade it flourished in, is irrevocable. For one thing, Mitch is barely clinging to his sanity. As he puts it: “The man you once knew no longer exists.” His last two solo album covers after his breakup with Mickey featured him straitjacketed and digging his own grave, and he spends much of his screen time in a motel room surrounded by bottles of prescription drugs. This psychological collapse would be harrowing indeed, were it not for Levy’s estimable comic skills.
Mickey, meanwhile, has settled into a bland, suburban existence as the wife of an incontinence aid salesman and model train enthusiast (Jim Piddock). When Mitch and Mickey agree to reunite for the Town Hall show, they do so without clinging to any illusions of recapturing their lost youth. They are fully aware that they, along with the times, have a’ changed. Their changes, however, don’t necessitate any change in their material, which remains as safe, saccharine, and as out-of-touch as ever.
Mitch and Mickey’s realism about their place in history is not shared by all. One “folk historian,” referring to an onscreen kiss the couple shared mid-song in their heyday, says, “The kiss can’t be overstated… it’s maybe one of the great moments in the history of humans.” Such enthusiastic hyperbole evokes all the bombast that usually accompanies “serious” documentaries, miniseries and TV shows about the ’60s. This kind of bluster, applied to a kiss between then-married Mitch and Mickey implies a jab at mass-market attempts to reduce the entire decade to a single symbol, be it a peace sign, or your choice of rock icon or revolutionary.
It also signals just how far removed the couple is from the most significant events of the era. During the time of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, a chaste little kiss — in the middle of a song called “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” — is the most radical statement Mitch and Mickey can make.