Night of the old-timers

Christopher Guest’s new hoot taps the folkie spine.

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Think of The Mighty Wind as a folk music Spinal Tap. Here, Christopher Guest (who, you’ll recall, wrote Spinal Tap and whose character, Nigel Tufnel, has become iconic, even prophetic, in metal circles) spoofs New Christy Minstrels-type ’60s folk in a manner similar to Tap’s skewering of Uriah Heep-inspired prog-metal.

The story involves a legendary folk promoter named Irving Steinbloom, who has passed, and his folk-loathing brood, who book a Carnegie Hall concert in his honor. The tribute features three of Steinbloom’s most successful acts from the ’60s and the film documents each in a series of anecdotal interviews.

While not as funny as Tap or Guest’s later fictional documentaries, Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind still succeeds as a worthy, sometimes brilliant satire. And anyone down with the Guest template will recognize many of the faces.

We see the Folksmen (Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer — all members of Spinal Tap) who bring to mind the Kingston Trio with a self-seriousness that borders on the delusional. The Main Street Singers, updated as the New Main Street Singers, are led by Terry Bohner (John Michael Higgins) and his new wife, Laurie (Jane Lynch), who’s well-cast as a Mitchell brothers-era porn star — the clean-cut group is replete with toothpaste-ad grins and a religious bent that links pastel colors to divine intervention. Mitch & Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara) are a kind of folk-era Sonny and Cher, two one-time lovers who split up once commercial folk waned — a circumstance that sent the drug-addled Mitch to a prolonged nut-house repose. Noteworthy is Jennifer Coolidge as a pimping-art-for-dollars publicist who uproariously mirrors the modern-day PR flack.

While the film avoids references to 1960s politicking — which seems almost negligent in a send-up of a genre perceived as rooted in social protest — it goes lengths to raucously mock the preciousness of bad, flowery folk.

As intentionally absurd as the film’s music is — this superfluous brand of campfire folk was like diaper rash to fans of Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan — the folk-pop ditties the cast members themselves penned are so precise with ersatz earnestness that it all succeeds in much the same way as Tap. While nostalgia rears an unwanted head in your unconscious, the backward-gazing renders the edge of the music completely archaic, reduced to its most obvious — which, as parody, is fodder ripe for mirth.

Concocted by Guest and Eugene Levy, the script is augmented with ad-libbed dialogue, although interviews with band members sometimes meander, weighed down by their own improvisational inventiveness. Still, you sense that the time and place, the articulate and inarticulate assertions by the “artists” recalling the glory days are equal parts droll and sad, but never maudlin or pathetic.

There’s also Guest’s enthusiastic eye for detail: from ’60s album-cover art and Pete Seeger-Art Garfunkel pattern baldness to spot-on mechanizations of concert promotion and capturing the bleak fame and fiscal decline of once-loved folkies. In all, it’s the personality-driven characters of A Mighty Wind that rescue the film from becoming a token laugh-box for aging folkies.

The most alluring aspect here is the coupling of Levy and O’Hara, the best since their heady days on “SCTV.” As always, Levy can salvage a line of wearying dialogue with a simple lift of an eyebrow, a wide-eyed puppy-dog ogle. And O’Hara’s persuasive presence is unquestionable; a sheepish grace floats beneath the surface of her aging hippie élan. Here, the duo’s affectionate croonings — atop O’Hara’s autoharp and Levy’s acoustic guitar — become a cache of lost dreams and quixotic hope that nearly transcends the film’s satirical premise, all of which climax at the Carnegie Hall gig.

Goofing on stereotypes is no easy task and, at its best, A Mighty Wind lampoons without contempt, moves with the linear command of a good documentary, while honing in on music-biz clichés — and the appropriate has-beens on the dull nostalgia train — with the precision and heart of Spinal Tap. Like Tap, the cast captures well a group of once-revered musicians who had caught their time, and that time has stood still.

Brian Smith is the music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to bsmith@metrotimes.com.

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