A 2003 mockumentary directed by Christopher Guest and written by Guest and Eugene Levy. The movie brings together the cast of fabulous character actors we came to know and love from other Guest movies in this genre - including This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, and Best in Show - and sets them loose around the theme of folk music.

The story begins soon after the death of Irving Steinbloom, the manager and promoter of several influential sixties folk acts. His son Jonathon (Bob Balaban) decides to put together a tribute concert featuring several of those acts. The movie chronicles the mad rush to set up the concert, the event itself, and a chat with some of the principals six months later.

The first band that appears on stage is The New Main Street Singers, a phoenix risen from the ashes of The Main Street Singers, a "neuftet" of (nine) talented musicians which broke up in 1971. The new neuftet consist of a squeaky clean crew in colour coordinated sweater vests, led by Terry and Laurie Bohner (John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch), a relentlessly chipper couple who, when not playing at amusement parks around the country, chair the Tampa chapter of WINC (Witches in Nature's Colours). (Parker Posey is sadly wasted in her role as impossibly bouncy band member Sissy Knox.)

Second up are The Folksmen, a troubador trio consisting of bass Mark Shubb (Harry Shearer), tenor Jerry Palter (Michael McKean), and the missing link Alan Barrows (Guest). Their albums, with catchy names like "Singin'", "Pickin'", "Ramblin'", and "Hitchin'", never did that well because the record company didn't put holes into the centres of the LPs, but they did have one big hit, "Old Joe's Place", the memorable chorus of which goes:

There's a puppy in the parlour
And a skillet on the stove
A smelly old blanket
That a Navajo wove.
There's chicken on the table
But you gotta say grace.
There's always something cookin'
At Old Joe's Place.

The final act to grace the stage are Mitch & Mickey (Levy and Catherine O'Hara), once young lovers who exchanged a kiss on TV in the middle of a song ("Kiss at the End of the Rainbow") that rocketed them to stardom. They had a string of hits, but when their love ended acrimoniously, so did the musical collaboration. Mitch was plunged into depression, while Mickey married a catheter salesman, but they agreed to reunite once more to pay tribute to Steinbloom.

Like Guest's other mocumentaries, the dialogue in this film is largely improvised, so it takes true comic geniuses to carry it off, and they do admirably well. The songs mimic their genre so well that the concert itself seems totally believable as a real event, aided by a housefull of extras who sing along to lyrics projected on screens to give the feel of old favourites. (In fact, "Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2003, and Mitch and Mickey appeared together to sing it at the awards ceremony. As with the movie itself, the performance was so convincing that I'm sure many people didn't realize the whole thing was a satire.) All in all, great fun.

The official website, at http://amightywindonline.warnerbros.com/, has lots of clips and photos about the movie, and you can hear the hokey songs for yourself!

The Album

I'm essentially musically illiterate. I don't know what to call anything, don't play an instrument, and basically don't even listen to much music. I can be impressed, perhaps too easily.

I don't think I have been so with this album, however. I adore A Mighty Wind. It is one of my favorite films, and I find the Mitch & Mickey pieces to be extremely effective. They are undeniably sweet, with (to my untutored ears) evocative harmonies. They also seamlessly intertwine with the story. After watching the film, I decided I needed to have the album. I wanted all of the Mitch & Mickey songs I could get my hands on. A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow was a charming love song, and I could tell from the fragments in the film that When You're Next To Me was perhaps even better.

It is. I have been listening to this album in my car, and I find the entire thing delightful. I sing along at the top of my not very tuneful lungs and bob to the infectious melodies. Favorite track of all, #6, followed up by #3. #14 is really handy for getting rid of ''stuck'' songs, like Bananaphone.

The album is not a proper soundtrack. It is a compilation album of the three folk groups from the film. It doesn't have any of the background music they wrote, nor all the songs filmed. The songs in the film which are not included on the album: The Catheter Song and Barnyard Symphony for perhaps obvious reasons! Also, there are songs in the DVD extras that didn't make it onto the album. Again, for good reason.

Folk music lends itself to skillful amateurs, and to singing along. Part of the film's charm is how many different types of folk song, how many popular motifs are iterated, all in originally written and performed music. The songs were primarily written by members of the cast. One exception is that Annette O'Toole was not a performer in the film. However, she is Michael McKean's wife. The other is the notable cover of a song by The Rolling Stones from their 1981 Tattoo You album. In the film, all of the musical performances (except for the ''archival'' TV appearances) were performed live by the actors. They all also played the instruments themselves. Consider that several of them had to learn entirely new instruments with little or no previous experience. The TV appearances were filmed with a guide track and lip synching, appropriate for the time period from which the footage was to have come. The tracks on the album were recorded in a studio, and were not taken from recordings from the film. Thus, you'll notice that the New Main Street Singers is missing a few performers.

Christopher Guest explains on the film's DVD commentary that he asked John Michael Higgins to do the vocal arrangments for The New Main Street Singers after hearing a tape from the set of Best in Show. Apparently, Higgins (who played Scott Dolan, who showed Miss Agnes) would get together on the set with Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, and Jane Lynch (who played Christy Cummings, who showed Rhapsody in White). They would sing songs for which he would create harmonies. Some of this was caught on tape, and when Guest heard it he realized he had the perfect person to do the arrangements for his next film.

The songs are, to my mind, a brilliant extension of the film. They emphasize the characterization of the different groups as well as being singable and often gaspingly funny or poignant. Listened to as a separate entity, only the Mitch & Mickey songs hold up without satire, but then, they are meant to do so. I generally pay attention to lyrics, and this gets me in trouble with people who feel I spend far to much time trying to figure out the words of a song. This album is rich with gleanings for someone who pays attention to lyrics, even as it's a pleasure to listen to if you don't.

An * marks tracks not performed in the film at any point. Many of the songs are heard in the background at times, or partially during rehearsals.

The New Main Street Singers: David Alan Blasucci (Tony Pollono) (vocals, guitars); John Michael Higgins (Terry Bohner) (vocals, vocal arrangement for the New Main Street Singers); Jane Lynch (Laurie Bohner) (vocals); Christopher Moynihan (Sean Halloran)(vocals); Steve Pandis (Johnny Athenakis)(vocals, acoustic bass, penny whistle); Parker Posey (Sissy Knox) (vocals); Patrick Sauber (Jerald Smithers)(banjo, mandolin)
2. Just that Kinda Day written by C. Guest and M. McKean
5. Fare Away written by CJ Vanston, M. McKean and A. O'Toole
8. The Good Book Song written by M. McKean and H. Shearer
10. Never Did No Wanderin' written by M. McKean and H. Shearer
13. Main Street Rag written by J.M. Higgins
15. Potato's in the Paddy Wagon written by M. McKean and A. O'Toole

The songs for The New Main Street Singers are all very peppy and preternaturally happy. In the film, there's something slightly disturbing about their unquenchable cheerfulness. It's all about the performance, here.

Don't cry, don't fret, don't frown, you'll only bruise your heart
the sun's a circus clown, the moon's a lemon tart.

from Just that Kinda Day

There is a sense of religious cultishness or even robotic perfection hiding an undertow of unconfronted issues. This is carried through in the music by their flawless harmony and strict enunciation. Fare Away is particularly of note in this. The singers are always perfectly in synch, and they even exaggerate ''whale'' identically. The harmonies are wonders of precision, with a vitality that almost seems born of the wound tight tension of the hyper-control of the taskmaster arranger. This must have been a deliberate characterization choice by Higgins.

The Good Book Song reinforces the Christian overtones as one of those bizarre happy bible songs. Its superficial message is undermined by the fact that everything it states is a creative exaggeration, essentially a lie. Meanwhile, the implied threat is made blisteringly joyous

It's scary but it's true, and if I were you
I'd do what the good book, do what the good book tells me to!

from The Good Book Song

Their version of Never Did No Wanderin' is beautifully overdone. The song sounds fantastic, absolutely over the top in theatrics. The song combines an outlandishly exuberant ''loner/wanderer'' motif with the not-even-remotely-spontaneous-or-alone performance coupled to actual lyrics of the song (which contradict the loner/wanderer motif by simply adding a 'no' or 'never' before each cliché).

Main Street Rag is another moment when the intention of the song, for the group to cut loose and see ''how far out can Main Street get,'' is contradicted by the precision of the performance, performed entirely in harmony with no solos.

The Folksmen: Christopher Guest (Alan Barrows) (vocals, guitar, banjo, mandolin); Michael McKean (Jerry Palter) (vocals, guitar, mandolin); Harry Shearer (Mark Shubb) (vocals, acoustic bass)
1. Old Joe's Place written by C. Guest, M. McKean and H. Shearer
4. Never Did No Wanderin' written by M. McKean and H. Shearer
7. Loco Man written by H. Shearer
9. Skeletons of Quinto written by C. Guest
*12. Blood on the Coal written by C. Guest, M. McKean and H. Shearer
*14. Start Me Up written by K. Richards and M. Jagger

The Folksmen has the benefit of a longer life than the other groups. The group was first formed to open for Spinal Tap, and as such, their signature song Old Joe's Place was actually written in 1984. This piece is the perfect stereotypical folk song. However, all the other songs they perform are often painfully funny. Most obvious is the sexual innuendo of which the group seems blissfully unaware.

O-97 went in the wrong hole
Now in mine number 60, there's blood on the coal....

from Blood on the Coal

They do a cover of Start Me Up which I find truly brilliant. The original lyrics can be found at http://www.keno.org/stones_lyrics/startmeup.html What they do to the song to turn it ''folk'' is pure hilarity. Wait for the very last word, and realize their greatness.

Also wonderful, however, are the just plain absurd songs. Never Did No Wanderin' which is all about never having had adventures, and is performed with perfect seriousness as quite the opposite. Loco Man which makes virtually no sense at all, and which Guest described in his commentary as hearkening back to a period of folk music that would emulate Calypso and come up with particularly racist and patronizing fake accents. This is performed by the same group which does the Skeletons of Quinto and you have to wonder at the strange blindness of its activism. Listening closely to the Skeletons of Quinto is particularly valuable. On the surface, it's a pretty tune, well played and feelingly sung (if a little melodramatic). Then you get to the spoken Spanish part, which Guest performs with a soft and persistent lisp, and you realize something is up. The true pay off, however, is the moment of stunned realization which arrives in the penultimate line. I won't ruin the surprise, as you really need to listen to the words and discover it for yourself.

Mitch & Mickey: Eugene Levy (Mitch Cohen) (vocals, guitar); Catherine O'Hara (Mickey Crabbe) (vocals, autoharp); Bruce Gaitsch (guitar); Joe Godfrey (acoustic bass)
3. When You're Next to Me written by E. Levy
6. One More Time written by C. O'Hara and E. Levy
*11. The Ballad of Bobby and June written by E. Levy
16. A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow written by M. McKean and A. O'Toole

Mitch and Mickey have the fewest songs, which I regret as I find them particularly wonderful. When You're Next To Me, One More Time, and A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow tell a little narrative from the film. The first is a sweet love song, and my favorite from the film (it is one of the two tracks over the end credits in the film). The second is a song asking for reconciliation, and is my favorite from the album. (During the film, it is heard softly playing while the sound engineer tells the story of Mickey losing it one day during a recording session, and the breakup of the duo.)

Please don't take away your love, dear, one mistake is not a crime
Let's start again, my love is yours dear, your love is mine... one more time

from One More Time

Interestingly, it is sung by Mickey, rather than Mitch, when in the film, Mickey is the one who left the marriage. This adds a little subtext to the song, as if Mitch wrote the song as a plea for forgiveness and understanding. At the same time, the performance by Catherine O'Hara conveys Mickey's distress and perspective as well.

The version of A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow is from the latter part of Mitch and Mickey's story. The film has several versions, all of which have a different feel. Especially the early 'television performance' when they are still young and happy. The track on the cd is slower, more pensive, and with overtones of sorrow. Suddenly, My sweet, my dear, my darling, you're so far away from me// though an ocean of tears divides us, let the bridge of our love span the sea takes on the weight of the events of the film. The three songs are presented in this order on the cd, interrupted by only one song.

The Ballad of Bobby and June is particularly interesting. In the DVD extras, there is a cut scene when Mitch and Mickey rehearse what is meant to be a very old and brutal folk song called On Killington Hill. Mitch calls it a beautiful love song. The Ballad of Bobby and June hearkens back to such historical songs in that the characters in the title are lovers during the Civil War. Clearly, Mitch and Mickey only sing love songs, whether ancient or original. This love song is all about Bobby returning to his June, despite a wound in his chest. Metaphorically, it still follows the story line set up by the other three songs. Here is Mitch, still not fully recovered from Mickey leaving him twenty years earlier, returning to her. The bittersweet performance of A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow is a recognition that they cannot return to what they once had. In the film, the resolution is positive, Mitch (Bobby) 'heals' and is able to write music again and Mickey (June) rediscovers her love of music and performance.

17. A Mighty Wind written by C. Guest, M. McKean and H. Shearer

Here's another song where the humorous innuendo in the lyrics is deliberate and nailed home in the last verse. Guest and Levy discuss it during the commentary, and mention how many people overlook it. Of course, the performers can't draw attention to it as absurd, they have to play it perfectly straight, and do so.

Yes, a mighty wind's a blowing 'cross the land and 'cross the sea
It's blowing peace and freedom, it's blowing equality.
Yes, it's blowing peace and freedom, it's blowing you and me.

from A Mighty Wind

Additional Musicians: CJ Vanston (accordion, melodica, keyboards, percussion on various tracks); Gregg Bissonette (snare drums, percussion on Potato's in the Paddy Wagon ); David Nichtern (nylon string guitar on Skeletons of Quinto ); Marston Smith (cello on Skeletons of Quinto ); David Alan Blasucci (12-string guitar on The Ballad of Bobby and June); Don Shelton (additional vocals for The New Main Street Singers)

Also on the album cd is a video extra. It is the performance of When You're Next to Me seen as shot for television (as all of the concert footage was), from the concert, even though it was not used in the film. It appears to differ slightly from the version in the DVD extras.

A Mighty Wind DVD extras and commentary track. Castle Rock Entertainment, 2003.
A Mighty Wind: The Album liner notes. Sony Music Entertainment Inc, 2003.
Best in Show. Castle Rock Entertainment, 2001.

The album website at www.columbiarecords.com/amightywind

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