Pop music makes you believe, even if just for a few minutes, that the simplest thing can be profound, that a feeling can last forever. Music promises an escape not only into it but through it. It is persistent and can haunt you for years, sometimes your whole life. Times change, trends change, artificial sweeteners change, but the songs remain the same, packed away in mothballs, until they are unleashed at the grocery store, airport, or on a commercial for rheumatoid arthritis medication during Wheel of Fortune. When exposed to musty, old earworms that have now been reduced to wallpaper, we are confronted not only with the songs themselves but elements of ourselves that are all tangled up in them. Our pratfalls, our triumphs, our devastation, the soundtrack of the good years and bad. Somehow these songs transcend time, while we soldier on in the trenches of reality.
Take “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow,” an original song from Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind. Written by Michael McKean and Annette O’Toole, it’s a mock folk throwback as sweet as sherbet floating in a bowl of Hawaiian Punch and ginger ale. “Oh when the veil of dreams has lifted / And the fairy tales have all been told,” sing Mitch and Mickey, the 1960s folk duo played by Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara. “There’s a kiss at the end of the rainbow / More precious than a pot of gold.” Simply sung over acoustic guitar and autoharp, this chivalrous tale of a valiant knight and his maiden fair is dripping with mellow gold sentimentality, but it is genuine and heartfelt. Like a kiss, it might not be the truth, but it is what we wish were true. How does something like this, with the nutritional value of Skittles, have so much power, such serene beauty, that the song somehow gets even sweeter each time it is reprised throughout the movie? It taps into our innermost desires like communion with a lover. The song lives forever and, through it, in a way, so do we. Who can resist the promise of eternal happiness where there are no troubles in the world, no messes, no misunderstandings? It’s like feeling nostalgia for something that never existed.
Mitch and Mickey are former lovers reunited for a tribute concert after more than 30 years apart. Their relationship ended in shambles and the ensuing decades have been sobering. Mitch, a nervous wreck recently discharged from a psychiatric hospital, is a man not only damaged but damn near broken. He is so anxious that it seems just opening his mouth is an act of bravery. “They’re expecting to see a man who no longer exists,” he says in spastic spurts. He blurts out rambling hiccups and poetic nonsense: “I feel ready for whatever the experience is that we will take with us after the show. I’m sure it will be an adventure, a voyage on this magnificent vessel into unchartered waters. What if we see sailfish jumping and flying across the magnificent orb of a setting sun?” Mickey has settled down with a medical supplies salesman specializing in incontinence products (buttocks drapes, penis clamps, the works). These two dreamers have long since abandoned their flower power beatnik fantasies, but now find themselves thrust back into the spotlight and must pantomime those half-remembered dreams for an audience. You play yourself or, at least, someone else’s idea of yourself.
A Mighty Wind is the third movie in Christopher Guest’s improv comedy cycle that spans 20 years, beginning with Waiting for Guffman in 1996, and, most recently, Mascots in 2016. Improv comedy is oftentimes compared to jazz, for lack of a better metaphor, but in the case of this quasi-documentary folk musical revue, the analogy of musicians jamming is adequate enough. Guest achieved his place in the comedy pantheon, alongside McKean and Harry Shearer, with the heavy metal spoof of the spandex set, This is Spinal Tap in 1984. Filmed nearly 20 years later, A Mighty Wind acts as an ad hoc Spinal Tap reunion. Guest, McKean, and Shearer get the band back together again (literally), reuniting as the Folksmen, a semi-politically motivated group better known for whimsical, aw-shucks songs like “Old Joe’s Place” and albums entitled Pickin’, Wishin’, and Singin’.
If satire is comedy’s revenge, A Mighty Wind strikes a different tone than the rest of Guest’s work. There’s less judgment and ill will. The tone is softer, the caricatures more human and less cartoony, but still delightfully weird around the edges. There is a cult that worships the color spectrum, an autoharp song sung at a medical supplies convention about catheters. It’s a cozy comedy comfortable in its sagging skin. When McKean, Shearer, and Guest reconnect, it is not as hard-rocking dunces, but corny, over-the-hill men with paunches and receding hairlines who crack dad jokes. There’s so much good-natured warmth and unironic nostalgia in this movie that it lacks the caustic, borderline cruelty that characterizes some ugly propaganda satires where humor is weaponized. This is Guest’s first faux-documentary where he has affection for its subjects and subject matter, poking fun, and having fun, rather than a ritual humiliation of the characters. Whereas the material of Guest’s other improv movies is held at arm’s length (metal, community theater, dog shows, sports mascot competitions) this is his most generous and gracious movie.
In an improv arena typically populated with broad exaggerations, Eugene Levy’s performance as Mitch devastates, although even his quieter moments alone in a fleabag hotel are repeatedly punctuated with the neighboring guests having loud sex through the paperthin walls. His existence is that of an overmedicated man shuffling his feet through life. When we see stock footage of him in his youth performing onstage with Mickey, gently pressing their lips together in the midst of their signature song, it is a reminder that even a flash in the pan was once ignited. Will they or won’t they, everyone wonders, will they kiss onstage again, even if just for old time’s sake? Catherine O’Hara plays Mickey as a crestfallen dreamer turned stubborn realist who looks back on her youth with Mitch not only as if it were long ago, but as a life lived by a different person. The songs haunt them both. Levy and O’Hara, a match made in comedy heaven, are the pulsating heart of the movie, portraying a pair of artists who are ill prepared to function in the real world without the comfort of each other or the art they made together. We don’t laugh at them; we care about them.
Guest quickly transformed an experimental filmmaking style into a master’s formula. Working from a short outline co-written with Levy, the scenes are filmed with minimal—if any—rehearsal. Guest has assembled a repertory company, a comedy commune of character actors, and created the greatest improvisation ensemble this side of Saskatchewan. These are the heirs of Nichols and May, Del Close, the Committee, Second City, and the Groundlings. These are comics’ comics and actors’ actors, a who’s who of improv: Parker Posey, Jane Lynch, Fred “Wha’ Happened?” Willard, Bob Balaban, John Michael Higgins, Jennifer Coolidge, Ed Begley Jr. These are the kind of actors who steal every scene of any other movie they appear in. Since A Mighty Wind is an all star improv extravaganza, here they just make each other look better (except Fred Willard, who always steals every scene, no matter what). This is a cast where every actor is a supporting actor in the sense that everyone supports one another. It’s the philosophy and ethics of improv in action. Through collaboration they created a comedy that is heartwarming without being sickly sweet like aspartame.
Guest has demystified musical genres since his time with the National Lampoon Radio Hour. In the 1973 Woodstock stage show mockery Lemmings, Guest apes the styles of John Denver, Bob Dylan, and James Taylor. He nails it. His John Denver parody “Colorado” succeeds as an aching acoustic folk song about urban alienation and the joys of nature…until bears eat the rations, there’s a hepatitis outbreak, and an ordeal with a yeti. Guest is a comedy chameleon who has set his sights on rock, pop, folk, psychedelia, heavy metal, and musical theater, for starters. Just listen to his novelty songs like “Well-Intentioned Blues,” about a middle-class liberal who laments his role as oppressor, or the Motown spoof “Kung Fu Christmas.” His movies, like The Simpsons in its heyday, are straight pieces desperate to burst into song for any reason whatsoever. His previous repertoire (the Spinal Tap catalogue, the staged musical numbers from Guffman, Eugene Levy’s “Terrier Style” songs from Best in Show) is an accumulation of prank songs and spoofs riddled with jokes, bad puns, and punchlines. These are sheer and utter gags, tongues planted firmly in cheek. Listening to straight music from these clowns should be like trying to appreciate a dramatic turn by Leslie Nielson after watching Airplane! or The Naked Gun. Something is different in A Mighty Wind, though. The songs have been dredged of irony. Even as they parody a genre, the music is not a mere facsimile. It sounds painstakingly real.
The movie is nearly wall to wall music, all original compositions primarily written by Guest, McKean, Shearer, and Levy. The songwriting is purposely breezy and apolitical, but the emotional power of the music is undeniable. Mitch and Mickey’s “When You’re Next to Me” or “The Ballad of Bobby and June” are love songs simultaneously timeless yet dated. Like the second wave folk revival itself, they are twice removed. These are songs written for young, naive dreamers in love with the idea of love. They are catchy, they are pretty, and, most importantly, evoke basic emotions. Even the sadness is made beautiful. They promise folklore: peace, love, magic, rainbows, and blue skies—happy, sugary things not of much substance. But the great lesson of youth is that you cannot exist on a diet of treacle. A Mighty Wind captures the aftermath of these performers who had to leave their dreams by the wayside or lost them along the way. This wing of the second-wave folk revival’s message was innocuous. This was not Bob Dylan or Joan Baez, the scions of Woody Guthrie and the IWW, producing radical protest music, but poppy songs in the guise of folk. This was an accessible, whitewashed, post-HUAC folk movement that was palatable to the mainstream rather than just left-leaning boomer hipsters in coffee shops. It was a folksy simulacrum and the movie revels in this simple, second-hand joy.
After many years as a director, François Truffaut observed, “Our most sincere film can seem phony.” Sincerity is a risk for comedians and it is oftentimes safer to be edgy. Sincerity makes you vulnerable and files away the edges. A Mighty Wind is soft without being soft-headed, lighthearted without being slight. Its sincerity floats rather than sinking to the bottom of the barrel. This is the most humane, least judgmental work that Guest and Co. have ever accomplished. It is not the funniest or most quotable, but it operates on a human level, and nearly glows. Just before Mitch and Mickey are set to take the stage as the closing act of the tribute concert, Mitch leaves the theater and disappears into the frenzy of Times Square. He wanders aimlessly through the dazzling lights, seemingly suffering a psychotic break. Mickey is furious at how inconsiderate and selfish he is now and was then. He returns shortly thereafter with a single flower in hand. He wanted to fetch the perfect rose for her. There have been touches of this humane decency in Guest’s earlier work, but here it is on full display.
After Guffman, Guest’s improv formula was pristine, culminating with Best in Show, a masterpiece of mean spirited, cringe comedy full of ridiculous situations and characters deserving of ridicule. We usually watch movies settling for the familiar, but we yearn for the unexpected. When I left the theater after watching A Mighty Wind, it was a revelation that Guest would follow up the manic buffoonery of Best in Show with such a subdued and tender movie. I found myself emotionally invested in the characters rather than laughing at their expense. These folk songs, written from the outside in, deliver not what the folk revival was, but what it was capable of. Even the purposely obnoxious songs written for the gratingly chipper New Main Street Singers are as catchy as the common cold. There are no irreverent or ironic lyrics, no mockery, no winks, or mugging. Gone are the days of Spinal Tap songs like “Big Bottom” where they ask the eternal question “How can I leave this behind?”
Guest says his taste is more inclined to bluegrass and could have made this style of folk music laughable, but instead he elevates the folk revival to its initial aspirations as a people’s art the way improv is a people’s art. When all the characters share the stage to sing the title track at the tribute concert’s conclusion, we are hit with a wall of sound. They sing, “Yes a mighty wind’s a blowing / Cross the land and cross the sea / It’s blowing peace and freedom / It’s blowing equality.” The characters mean it and we believe it. Guest’s previous improv movies are a celebration of mediocrity, a trial by fire, whereas this here is loving, a genuine, although imperfect, act of conscience. In Spinal Tap, Michael McKean says, “It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.” In A Mighty Wind it’s such a fine line between parody and tribute.