By Owen Gleiberman
April 25, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

Among the many funny and wondrous sounds in A Mighty Wind, Christopher Guest’s sublime, dizzying satire of American folk music and the people who once played it, we get to hear the tender warblings of Mitch & Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara), a romantic duo in the plaintive-turtleneck mold of Ian & Sylvia or Richard and Mimi Fariña. There they are, performing their treacly ballad ”A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” on TV in the mid-’60s, the beady-eyed Mitch caressing his guitar strings, the moony Mickey strumming away on the autoharp. Suddenly, the two stop, right at the song’s penultimate pause…and kiss. It’s an act of spontaneous devotion that goes down in folk history.

Now, after decades of not speaking, Mitch & Mickey have been lured back together to perform at a tribute concert for their late manager, the legendary Irving Steinbloom; the show is to be broadcast live on public television from New York’s Town Hall. Steinbloom’s son, played with antic anxiety by Bob Balaban, is scrambling to assemble the reunion, which features two other acts once managed by his father: the Folksmen, a trio of ridiculously quaint and jaunty pluckers whose sole hit, an ode to the perfect diner called ”Old Joe’s Place,” climaxes with the bassist reading the diner’s busted neon sign (”Eat…at…’O’s!”) in solo basso profundo; and the New Main Street Singers, an upbeat ensemble of clean-cut, uniformed squares who are like a brainwashed cult of smiley reformed misfits.

In their avidly innocuous way, both the Folksmen and the New Main Street Singers are aboard for the show. It’s clear, though, that whatever feeling Mitch & Mickey once shared died along with their act — if, indeed, it ever lived up to the act in the first place. Mitch, a frazzled control freak, lost his mind when the pair split up, and has yet to gain it back; he’s as blitzed as a walking acid casualty. Mickey, married to a British catheter salesman, is still licking the wounds that she endured as Mitch’s paramour, harmonist, and doormat. The two look as if they’d rather be getting oral surgery than sitting in the same living room, and it’s hard not to giggle at what a sentimental piece of doggerel their famous song is. Except that the song has another, surprise dimension: It’s genuinely pretty. The more often it’s played, the more you like hearing it. ”A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” may be a winsome lie from beginning to end, but, like the rest of A Mighty Wind, it conjures a utopia that never existed. It’s both a joke and something more — a three-minute repository of lost boomer dreams.

A Mighty Wind is a movie that re-creates its object of satire with such pitch-perfect flair that it all but erases the line between derision and love. The songs were composed and performed by the cast members themselves, and they bring some of the same conviction to the enterprise that the actor-musicians did to Nashville. The movie is a folkie parody for anyone who, like me, finds the wholesome, tinkly, white-bread vibe of most folk music insipid beyond words but who can also listen to the Kingston Trio’s version of ”Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and find its cascading wistfulness beautiful beyond words. Guest pokes a finger in the eye of folk musicians, in all their twee middle-class cheer, but he also gets you to fall for the mirage you’re laughing at.

Folk, by nature, is a communal form, and the comedy in A Mighty Wind is communal too; you have to adjust to its mellow acoustic volume. The movie, shot in Guest’s patented mode of acerbically deadpan faux documentary (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show), doesn’t have a central, dominating figure of high egomania — the equivalent of Nigel Tufnel in This Is Spinal Tap or Guffman‘s Corky St. Clair. Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer, reunited on screen for the first time since Spinal Tap, play the Folksmen, and though their physical transformation is hilarious (Guest with a bald dome gilded by bushy gray curls; Shearer, in a fantastically ugly beard, looking and acting like an Amish librarian on sedatives), their petty squabbling triggers knowing chuckles rather than belly laughs.

The bigger guffaws are inspired by the New Main Street Singers, led by John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch as husband and wife straight arrows who are also bent about as far as they can be (they’re happy zombies of American conformity), and from knuckleball scene-stealers like Fred Willard, who plays their manager with a self-promotional fervor that borders on hysteria. Disconnection — from the world, from other human beings, has always been Guest’s grand satirical theme. In A Mighty Wind, each of the three ensembles is like a family pretending, through music, to be together. When the concert goes up, it becomes a celebration of riotously imperfect bonds.

The one who really stands alone is Mitch. Eugene Levy, in John Lennon specs and professorial hippie hair, gazes off into a private abyss, and he utters each syllable with robotic separation, as if forcing it out through compressed lungs. Levy gets major laughs, but he also gives a performance so haunted that it’s beyond funny. Mitch, with his spooked stare and strangled voice, may be a wack job, but he embodies all the introspective pain and darkness and malfunction that folk music, in its relentless group conviviality, denies.

Speaking of group spirit, you may think Guest has made the mistake of ignoring folk music’s socially conscious, lefty-protest side. Have no fear: He holds out until the uproarious title number, which is the show’s rousing finale. It’s an ode to peace and freedom, and it’s a testament to what it sounds like when the truly clueless truly care.

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 92 minutes
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