Outfolking the Folkies

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Of all the forms of mid-century pop music, the one that has resisted revival most devoutly is folk. Easy to see why: the music was both cheery and pompous, cleaner than Harriet Nelson's kitchen and nearly as white as the 1963 Masters tournament. In many middle-aged minds, the old folkies linger as a vague adolescent embarrassment — the musical equivalent of sophomore zits.

So Christopher Guest had to make a film about them.

Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, the two earlier improvised comedies Guest assembled and directed, are about people whose dream of achieving an obscure goal (putting on a small-town musical, winning a dog show) far outstrips their sense or competence. In A Mighty Wind, he and co-writer Eugene Levy offer a new blueprint for poignant idiocy: the reunion of three folk groups 40 years after their 15 seconds of fame.

All of them — the Kingston Trio — like Folksmen, the depressingly uplifting "neuftet" New Main Street Singers (with John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch and Parker Posey) and the duo Mitch & Mickey (Levy and Catherine O'Hara)--persist in believing, as show people must, that they somehow mattered. And still do. "To do 'then' now is retro," Folksman Harry Shearer insists. "To do 'then' then was very now-tro."

This could be an essay in contempt — the movie's title suggests a corrective fart aimed at the ghost of folk pop — but what's the fun in that? These gifted improv-ers of course locate the ludicrous. (Lynch does a roguish parody of everything that is creepy and false about show-biz poise.) But Guest also trusts any actor's tendency to fall in love with his character — and find elaborate rationales for goofy behavior. "There had been abuse in my family," Higgins solemnly recalls. "But it was mostly musical."

There could be musical abuse in Wind, but again, the creators can't leave awful enough alone. They may be playing bad singers, but they're bound to make good music (composed and performed by the cast and collected on a terrific CD). Old folkies will spot the genres being guyed. Others will enjoy little frissons, like Guest's literally sheepish tenor (he baas his lyrics). The rest can just happily hum along.

One of the groups is blurbed as "the kind of infectious it's good to spread around." The same goes for this film: the sweetest and funniest of Guest's true-life fake-umentaries.