Christopher Guest has mastered the subtle art of parody. In his long career in comedy he has received his greatest acclaim for the number of parodies he has written, acted in or directed, including “This is Spinal Tap,” “Waiting for Guffman,” “Best in Show” and “A Mighty Wind.” The latter is Guest’s newest release featuring several of the same cast members as “Guffman” and “Best in Show,” this time as folk musicians, enthusiasts and sundry hangers-on.
To develop a thorough appreciation for Guest’s humor and work is to go back to the early days of National Lampoon and, most of all, its radio show. Many of us have grown up in a time without radio comedies, which have been all but completely replaced by television. For one year between 1973-74, some of the future biggest names in comedy, writers and actors were being tuned in on campuses, in homes and cars across the country. The cast of National Lampoon’s show included Guest, Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Brian Doyle-Murray, Gilda Radner, Harry Shearer, Harold Ramis, Joe Flaherty and Richard Belzer among others. The wildly funny and original show was a national launch pad for these talents, many of whom have become household names. The connections made by Guest to other young comedians and writers would be lifelong partnerships, resulting in several of the funniest movies ever made.
The radio show was wild and unpredictable, but it was never as improvisational as Guest’s later work, particularly movies he’s written, which tend to consist of highly detailed outlines and character descriptions but no dialogue, relying on improvisation between the characters within the context of whatever subculture is being parodied.
“A Mighty Wind” puts the screws to folk music, and the result is as hilarious as any of his other movies. The ensemble cast works so well together that they create an incredibly rich world that begins to appear real. After all, “mockumentaries” only work because documentaries have certain traits and stylistic elements designed to show how truthful they are.
All of the quirks and stereotypes associated with folk music are accounted for throughout the movie. Folk music has become a niche market these days. It is also closely associated with an iconic time in U.S. history. Thus, it is all the funnier to look at folkies without some running narration about how they were trying to change the world or bring a debauched popular music back to its roots. There have been enough real documentaries about the folk movement and its earnest, idealistic attributes that if you’re inclined to believe that, you’ve been given the evidence you need.
The funniest moments in the movie come from the investigation of the way many of the musicians and fans of folk became frozen in time when their moment ended. Guest lovingly pokes fun at these once-semi-famous-now-nobodies and their allegiance to a form of music that now exists at best as a faint shadow of its heyday. All of the musicians still live somewhere in the past, and have developed all sorts of weird ways to stay there. Most obviously part of this phenomenon is Eugene Levy’s “Mickey,” who has spent most of the intervening years institutionalized after a series of breakdowns.
Some of the humor in this movie also comes out of identifying and ridiculing the business side of folk, something many folkies would likely want to believe never existed in their world. This is particularly pronounced now that the real beatniks who existed around the time the fictional bands would have been playing have fully bought in or sold out. It’s great to see a movie deflate the myths and shake out of the coma-inducing nostalgia that seems to grip people who can neither find their way out of an era or admit they’ve changed.
There is a great folk tradition in this country, and like any great tradition, there are people who will package it and sell it, ultimately bleeding it dry and leaving it for dead. The Pete Seegers and Woody Guthries are replaced by groups like those portrayed in the movie “The Folksmen” or “The New Main Street Singers.” Guest’s pointed parody adeptly lances this boil on the corpus of pop music.
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