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Buy 'A Mighty Wind: The Album' (2003)

Buy one of the following Christopher Guest mockumentaries:

'This Is Spinal Tap' (1984; MGM's special edition DVD)

'Waiting for Guffman' (1997)

'Best in Show' (2000)


Tonight I'm Gonna Folk You: The Spinal Tap guys return, but this time the rock is on the table.

Tap Dance

'A Mighty Wind' takes on folk music in a familiar style

By Steve Palopoli

Everyone involved with A Mighty Wind must have known that it was going to be--fairly or unfairly--labeled a "This Is Spinal Tap for folk music," and expected to stand up to the comparison. What's weird is that director Christopher Guest, who co-starred in Rob Reiner's landmark Tap mockumentary in 1984 and then used it as a model more than a decade later for his own cult classics Waiting For Guffman and Best In Show, invites that very comparison throughout this film. He and his stock crew bust out a lot of the old Tap gags, giving this film the uniquely weird been-there-done-that feel of being a sequel to two franchises--both the Spinal Tap universe (which has played out over not just the original film, but also the subsequent albums and videos), and the Guffman-Show continuum.

OK, so it's not that weird, since by bringing back Michael McKean, Guest and Harry Shearer as "the Folksmen," the film is referring specifically to Spinal Tap's "Listen To The Flower People" folk-era bit, and also giving you that little nudge, like "Hey, remember how much you love these guys together as a fake band? Well, here they are again!" Hell, maybe they just feel bad about that shitty straight-to-video pseudo-sequel they did back in 1992, The Return of Spinal Tap. But in any case, it's still a risky move, as A Mighty Wind does often fall victim to the Sequel Law of Diminishing Creative Return. When the Folksmen are interviewed about the origins of their band early on, you can't help but remember the very similarly staged sequence in This Is Spinal Tap. When the Folksmen get lost, you remember "Hello, Cleveland!" When Bob Balaban, as the promoter of a huge folk reunion event that this whole film is based around, asks "Is this the real furniture?," I'll be damned if it doesn't trigger memories of Spinal Tap's Stonehenge debacle. And a lot of the yuks come from Tap-type things like album covers, song names and records with no hole in the middle.

So while it's admittedly a lot of fun for fans of the original film, the "Tap's Greatest Hits" angle isn't the strongest part of the film. Ironically, Guest and his creative partners (Eugene Levy once again co-wrote the story here, though most of the humor is improvised by the cast) have in many ways outdistanced the broader "parody" style of This is Spinal Tap in their last couple of films together, and the way they're able to keep you off-balance by exploiting both the ridiculous absurdity and the quiet dignity of their characters has become their real mark of genius. It's most evident here in the character of Mitch, played by Eugene Levy, who makes up half of "Mitch and Mickey," the Peter-Paul-and-Mary-like folk act set to headline Balaban's reunion show. At first, Levy's character seems like such a cartoonish parody of Jerry Garcia that it feels like watching his quirk-heavy mugging for an hour-and-a-half is going to be unbearable. But over the course of the film, Mitch is so surprisingly and carefully developed that by the main event it's actually heart-wrenching to watch him interact with Mickey, played by Catherine O'Hara (who is nothing less than brilliant throughout). Their story arc turns out to be the heart and soul of a movie that would have been eerily hollow without one.

A Mighty Wind isn't really about folk music--any more than Best in Show was about dog breeding--and in that way it's less like This Is Spinal Tap, which really dug into the legends and lore of heavy metal for its lampoon material. The music is in this case more of a backdrop, while the quirky characterizations are center stage. And it's interesting to see how Guest seems less interested in the mockumentary format than ever before--the characters still sit down for interviews, but the look is much more like a "real" film than cinéma-vérité, and there are several moments (such as when Mitch gets "lost") that couldn't really have been captured by a documentary crew, if you really think about it. It makes for kind of a strange mix of styles, but it also makes you excited to see how this group's comedy may develop into their next film.

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From the April 16-23, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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