Three Bronx cheers for A Mighty Wind, which might have sunk its teeth into the folk-music boom of the 1960s but instead tries to gum it to death. What has happened to Christopher Guest? Has he been taking nice pills? The creator of Waiting for Guffman and Best of Show, Guest has carved out a niche for himself as the maestro of cinema faux. Not cinema veritÃ, but cinema faux - fake documentaries that, by shining a light into the murky corners of American culture (community theater, dog shows), reveal how truly weird we are. Alas, each of Guest's movies has been less hard-hitting than the one before, and A Mighty Wind is a complete powderpuff. Guest reportedly despises the word "mockumentary" because he thinks it suggests he's mocking somebody or something. Gee, I thought it meant a fake documentary, as in a mock trial. And besides, what's so bad about mocking somebody? Isn't that what satire's all about?
Folkies would appear to be an ideal target - all the humming and strumming, the autoharps and dulcimers, the turtlenecks and sandals. And Guest, who once played mandolin in a high school band with Arlo Guthrie (and that's not all: Mary Travers, of Peter, Paul & Mary, used to be his babysitter), isn't an outsider looking in this time. He's a folkie too, which may explain why he seems more focused on lining up shots than on scoring points. What's most impressive about A Mighty Wind is its air of authenticity, the director's feel for a music scene that's been gone so long you almost can't believe it was ever really around. (The album covers alone are worth the price of admission.) But the movie's equally attuned to the here and now, when yesterday's stars have had to adjust to receding hairlines, expanding waistlines, wobbly vocal cords and the suspicion that their 15 minutes of fame ended 35 years ago.
The movie purports to be a documentary about the days leading up to a reunion concert at Manhattan's Town Hall - one of those nostalgia-thons that PBS likes to wheel out during fund-raisers. First up on the program are the New Main Street Singers, a relentlessly cheery "neuftet" (there are nine of them) clearly modeled on the New Christy Minstrels. Then we'll be hearing from the Folksmen, a guitar/mandolin/bass trio whose single hit, "Old Joe's Place," had 'em pattin' their feet back in the old days. (This Is Spinal Tap fans will rejoice at the reuniting of Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Guest, who've traded in their hair extensions for 'dos rarely seen outside a convention of gay Amish clowns.) And finally, Mitch and Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara) will grace us with their presence, if not a song. It all depends on whether Mitch can keep the neurons firing long enough to remember the words.
Mitch and Mickey (think Richard and Mimi Farina) are the heart and soul of A Mighty Wind - a love story that isn't good for many laughs and may even induce a tear or two. It seems they weren't just an item back then, they were the item, the Ben and J. Lo of folkdom, sealing performances of their hit song "There's a Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" with a big fat you-know-what. But they soon split up, Mickey later marrying a catheter salesman and Mitch going quietly bonkers. Levy, who's been given a writing credit along with Guest (although the scenes are all improvised), was apparently allowed to take Mitch wherever he wanted to, so he took him to Mars. It's an enjoyably weird performance, each word surrounded by lengthy pauses, and O'Hara deserves credit just for staying in synch with it. But you have to wonder why Levy and Guest thought this was the way to go. Plus, does a satire really need a heart and soul?
The other two folk groups take more ribbing, but not much more. The New Main Street Singers include a former porn actress who doesn't seem to see much difference between what she did then and what she does now. That's good for a laugh. But the Folksmen (a perfectly clumsy name) all but play it straight, at least until the epilogue, when Shearer suddenly plays it the opposite of straight. Guest, in particular, seems to have delved so deeply into his character that he forgot to come back out. He did the same thing in Best of Show, creating the human hound dog, Harlan Pepper, but not taking him anywhere. (That dog don't hunt.) Guest may think that creating a character is enough, that the sparks will fly when all the characters are thrown together. Well, sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't, as Robert Altman, under similar circumstances, has learned over the years.
A Mighty Wind bears more than a passing resemblance to Altman's Nashville, which is perhaps the greatest improvised movie of all time. In both cases, the actors wrote and performed their own songs. The difference is that, in Nashville, the songs were a way of fleshing out the characters, whereas here they seem like a substitute for characters. Also, Nashville's various storylines wove themselves into a crazy quilt of bicentennial America, whereas Guest keeps his folk groups apart from one another, as if they've never met before. Finally, Nashville was political, an attempt to capture the mood of the country as it slid into post-Watergate paranoia, whereas A Mighty Wind all but ignores the whole protest side of folk music, which is ripe for satire. There's pleasure to be had watching Guest's movie; improvisation is such a high-wire act. But it's beginning to look like Guest himself has forgotten how to work without a net.