A Mighty Wind
Directed by Christopher Guest
Written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy
Starring Guest, Levy, Harry Shearer, Catherine O'Hara, many others


A Mighty Wind

I'm proud to say that along with a thousand others I wasted my Sunday afternoons hanging out in Washington Square, listening to the great New York banjo pickers at the height of the bluegrass craze. My brother even had somebody make a five-string banjo for me in hopes that I could train my stubby fingers enough to play with him - a forlorn hope. But all my life I've responded to the power and the beauty and the political commentary of the best folk songs, by which I mean everything from traditional songs like "The Great Silkie" to the political songs that came out of the Spanish Civil War, composed by the committed fighters who left America to form the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and the International Brigade, joining the lost cause of the Republicans.

The folk revival in this country started in the 1940s with Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and the Almanac Singers. In the fifties it was the Greenbrier Boys and the New Lost City Ramblers, joining the Weavers, who were scratching for gigs because they'd been blacklisted. By the late fifties and early sixties there were what we now might call tribute groups - the Kingston Trio and the Chad Mitchell Trio - skilled, witty and politically aware, who bridged the gap between the folkies and the coming of Bob Dylan.

In those days everybody played or sang something, somewhere, and now Christopher Guest, who also had a little group back then and who's made mock documentaries about everything from has-been English rockers ("This is Spinal Tap") to community theatre groups ("Waiting for Guffman") to dog show finalists ("Best in Show") has come up with his tribute to the most second-rate of the second-rate folk singers, "A Mighty Wind." The film is the story of a reunion concert at Town Hall in memory of a supposedly legendary manager and promoter of folk musicians, in which three formerly famous groups are asked to come back on stage.

Only he hasn't got it quite right, for two reasons: first, he (and his writing/acting partner Eugene Levy) forgot most of the satirical bite, so we don't always know who to love and who to laugh at. They want us to do both at the same time, but comedy doesn't work that way. And second, at least one of the mock songs, played and sung by Levy and Catherine O'Hara as the old duo Mitch and Mickey - "The Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" - turns out to be seriously lovely.

The other two groups - the nine New Main Street Singers ('a neuftet') and the Folksmen (Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean) - are more successful targets. In particular, Jane Lynch is a dream as Laurie Bohner of the NMSS, who went on from the group to star as a porn film actress ("I had a, well, a particular talent that the other gals didn't") but now is committed to a religion that is built on vibrating colors. And Ed Begley, Jr., as the Swedish TV executive Lars, who uses every known Yiddishism in his speech, is wonderfully refreshing. The most unexpectedly delicious is Jennifer Coolidge as one half of a public-relations couple "who share one brain," as she puts it. Talking to a model train enthusiast, she points out that without the model trains no one would ever have gotten the idea for the big ones.

So there are moments to hang on to, but there are long stretches of shtick in which little happens; it's as though Guest and Levy, having come up with the idea of a satire, couldn't find it in themselves to go through with it. The film is fun around the edges and mushy at the core.