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'Mighty Wind, A'

Eugene Levy drops the nerd role in "A Mighty Wind."

Friday, May 09, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

You don't have to know your New Christy Minstrels from your Kingston Trio in order to enjoy "A Mighty Wind," the new folk-music mockumentary from Christopher Guest.

"A Mighty Wind" is the latest in a line of laugh-out-loud faux flicks directed and/or co-written by Guest. He's not likely to ever top the first and best of them, the heavy-metal spoof "This Is Spinal Tap" (Guest was a mere actor-scribe on that one, which Rob Reiner directed). The new film hews closer to the gentle hilarity of "Waiting for Guffman" than to the tart chortles of "Best in Show."

 
 
A Mighty Wind

RATING: PG-13 for sex-related humor.

STARRING: Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Christopher Guest.

DIRECTOR: Christopher Guest.

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As usual, the actors -- a repertory company of accomplished improvisers -- made up the dialogue on the spot, following a script outline by Guest and co-writer Eugene Levy.

In addition to their impromptu nature, these movies share a penchant for poking fun at people whose passion for a particular activity blinds them to their lack of talent for it or to the geekiness of their obsession.

At the same time, Guest finds something endearing about these folks and their foibles, something more relevant to the human condition than powerful characters tackling momentous deeds.

The movie begins with an announcement of Irving Steinbloom's death. He was instrumental in managing the careers of numerous folk-music acts of the '60s --traditional troubadours like The Folksmen. Portrayed by Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, they recorded such albums as "Hitchin'," "Wishin'," and "Ramblin'." The New Main Street Singers featured squeaky clean harmonies and nine performers, only one of whom was a member of the Original Main Street Singers. Mitch & Mickey (Levy and Catherine O'Hara) were real-life sweethearts and singing partners until their marriage and careers blew up in the mid-1970s.

Steinbloom's son, Jonathan (Bob Balaban), decides to honor his father's memory by holding a reunion concert. With the meticulous attention and concern for sharp objects of a Jewish mother, Steinbloom tracks down the performers and nags the stage manager (Michael Hitchcock) over every detail of the show.

Much of the humor lies in the movie's mock interviews with the various musicians and what they've been doing since their 15 minutes in the sun. The Folksmen relate how their recording label was so small, the discs had no holes in the center, making it an adventure to play them on a conventional stereo.

Terry Bohner of the New Main Street Singers (John Michael Higgins) is all smiles in his sweater-vest, at least until his wife, Laurie (Jane Lynch), tells us about her adult film career and her religion that is based on the power of color.

Mitch never quite recovered emotionally from his breakup with Mickey, who is now married to a catheter salesman (Jim Piddock). Mitch and Mickey become the focus of the movie as they rehearse their songs (the best known of which ends with them kissing) and walk a delicate emotional balance.

Levy goes beyond his usual sublime nerd persona to create a character with surprising facets. Levy and O'Hara have known each other for 30 years and work together almost effortlessly -- that relationship deepens the ties between Mitch and Mickey. There's a point at which they fall out of caricature and become so real that they forge an emotional bond with each other and with the audience.

One could argue that this throws "A Mighty Wind" off kilter, making it hard to take the spoofing as seriously as we should. I admit that it doesn't serve the ending of the film, when we find out what effect the concert has on the lives of the performers.

But there is still more than enough funny stuff to go around. The crowning touch may be the songs themselves, written by Guest and several of his actors. They sound authentic enough, right down to every banal folk-music cliche in the Burl Ives songbook.

And they air the concert on public TV. Now there's fodder for the next mockumentary.


Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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