Somewhere in between the silly jokes, pseudo-philosophy, and utter nut jobs that comprise his new mockumentary A Mighty Wind, Christopher Guest lets his audience in on a little secret: He doesn’t hate everyone. For many this wouldn’t come as a revelation but, in the case of this film and its chief creative architect, it does.
Guest, a screenwriter, director, former Saturday Night Live cast member and sometime actor, has knocked around the independent films for over 20 years and even directed a few conventional TV movies. But his great love is the “mockumentary.” While Monty Python and countless lesser known comic ensembles have parodied the documentary form since at the 1960s, Guest, along with director Rob Reiner, invented the mockumentary with 1984’s “This is Spinal Tap.” While Reiner, who has since directed films ranging from “When Harry Met Sally” to 1999’s rather forgettable “Story of Us”, has since moved onto Hollywood’s A list, Guest has made a career out of the satirical documentary. Since “Spinal Tap,” Guest has written, produced, directed, and acted in mockumentaries attacking high stakes dog shows (1999’s “Best in Show”) and community theater (1996’s “Waiting for Guffman”.) Those two films star many of the same actors as “Mighty Wind” and have scripts that skirt the line between earnestly real and downright bizarre. Others have entered the genre: Blair Witch Project (1999) was an enormously successful horror mockumentary (albeit one devoid of humor) and Arthur Boreman’s 1993 “The Making of. . .and God Spoke” used the format to attack Hollywood self indulgence head on.
But only Guest has a real following as a mockumentary maker. In its first two weeks, A Mighty Wind made almost $5 million (playing only in big cities), and had one of the best per-screen grosses of any movie playing on more than a handful of screens. This is pretty good for a movie that cost less than $5 million to make, didn’t buy and T.V. ads, and was marketed mostly on the Internet.
As a film, A Mighty Wind is only moderately amusing but it’s an interesting rejection of mainstream Hollywood nonetheless.
A Mighty Wind doesn’t have much action, has no real villains and is over in less than 90 minutes. It’s plot, what there is of one, follows and cleverly mocks 1983’s well-made new-left classic “The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time!” which follows Pete Seeger’s communist-linked folk group as it prepares for and presents a reunion concert. Three groups, the talented Folksmen (Guest, Harry Shearer, Michael McKean), Partridge Family rip-offs New Main Street Singers, and former lovers Mitch and Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara) go through pre-rehearsal rituals get their music into shape and finally play for the big concert. The plot centers around deeply neurotic Mitch and his efforts to regain his musical talent and reinvigorate his relationship with Mickey. The concert (warning, spoilers ahead), goes off without much of a hitch and the characters all end up at least a bit better off. Even two apparently “bad” outcomes aren’t bad for the characters involved: one psychotic character ends up back at a pleasant mental hospital while a perpetually angry man finds real happiness. . .as a woman. All this is very watchable at least in part because anyone who knows Guests’ style realizes that a train-wreck-style disaster is very possible. But unlike the driven dog owners of “Best in Show” or insane hard rockers of “Spinal Tap” the characters in this movie are all reasonably decent people and nothing truly awful happens to any of them. Through dialog and absurd situations (a Yiddish-phrase dropping Scandinavian T.V. executive, a speech about records without holes in the center), it even manages to provoke more than its fair share of laughs.
For the mockumentary genre, however, the movie breaks new ground in that the directors don’t seem to have seething hatred for the characters. Disliking the characters seems a universal in the genre: even the college students in Blair Witch project are so grating that many don’t feel much personal sympathy when someone or something kills them in the end. Guest, on the other hand, reminds audiences that it’s possible to make a comedy with sympathetic characters: a fact many in Hollywood seem to have forgotten in the age of David Letterman. This attitude isn’t particularly conservative (or liberal) but it does show a rejection of mainstream Hollywood.
The same rejection of Hollywood comes from the movies’ politics or, rather, the lack thereof. Folk musicians, with a very, very few exceptions, are a far-left bunch. But A Mighty Wind leaves the politics out almost entirely: Except for the title number, which alludes to vague, mushy notions of peace and brotherhood, it’s difficult to pull any political content at all out of the songs (all of which were written for the movie.) This appears to be a deliberate choice on Guest’s part: political songs in concert with the feelings of most folk musicians (songs about the evils of capitalism and opposed to the war on terror) would have cost the cast the sympathy of much of the audience. Political comedy works best when it focuses on individuals: Rush Limbaugh’s attacks on Bill Clinton and Al Franken’s attacks on Limbaugh raise heckles from Left and Right alike. But both become significantly less funny when they attack the Left and Right as groups. The personal attacks implicit in good political comedy would reduce the sympathy for the characters and thus, undermine Guest’s ambition of making a warm-hearted mockumentary.
For all these good and warm-hearted intentions, it’s hard to call the movie a roll-in-the-aisles all-time comic success. But one can’t blame Guest for trying.