Funny, dead-on in its gentle satire and unexpectedly sweet and even touching at the end, A Mighty Wind (2003) is a faux documentary from the same, ever-expanding team that began with This Is Spinal Tap (1984) and continued with Waiting for Guffman (1997), Best in Show (2000) and, more recently, For Your Consideration (2006) and Mascots (2016).
Partly inspired by Jim Brown's superb reunion film The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time (1982), a landmark documentary in dire need of a Criterion-type Blu-ray release, A Mighty Wind is structured around events leading up to a memorial concert for a legendary music producer, Irving Steinbloom, at The Town Hall in Manhattan. The concert is to feature three of his most famous clients: The Folksmen, The New Main Street Singers, and Mitch & Mickey.
The movie is loaded with big laughs but, as with Spinal Tap, it uncannily captures the essence of its musical genre. Recalling Robert Altman's Nashville (1975), all of the songs are written and/or performed by its cast. The melodies, lyrics, and arrangements play like the genuine article, real ‘60s folk music, with the lyrics so very slightly askew (like "Never Did No Wanderin'," a traveling song about going nowhere) their wonderful cleverness is easy to miss.
The biggest reward of A Mighty Wind, however, is its surprising sweetness, a subplot concerning the long estrangement and unresolved feelings of Mitch & Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara). What happens at the film's climax is funny and touching all at once, revolving around a genuinely lovely song (written by co-writer/co-star Michael McKean and his actress wife, Annette O'Toole, and nominated for an Academy Award).
Soon after the death of folk music pioneer Irving Steinbloom, his devoted if obsessive-compulsive son Jonathan (Bob Balaban) quickly arranges a memorial concert at The Town Hall to be broadcast live on public television.
The Folksmen, modeled after The Kingston Trio, consist of Mark Shubb, Alan Barrows, and Jerry Palter (Harry Shearer, Guest, and McKean, also the core of Spinal Tap). Each is uniquely eccentric yet so mild-mannered and good-natured they slip back into their anachronistic roles with relative ease.
Meanwhile, The New Main Street Singers are the second featured group. Based on The New Christy Minstrels, they are a nonet of ever-rotating members originally formed by George Menschell (Paul Dooley). Current members include Terry Bohner (John Michael Higgins) and his former adult film star-wife, Laurie (Jane Lynch), who practice a kooky, color-based religion they've invented. ("Humankind is simply color operating on the 49th vibration," explains Terry. "You would make that conclusion walking down the street or going to the store.") Also in the group is Sissy Knox (Parker Posey), a onetime juvenile delinquent who found salvation in the squeaky-clean group. Mike LaFontaine (Fred Willard, predictably hilarious), a one-season sitcom star, manages them. His character combines the awesome unfunniness of Joe E. Ross with the affability of Roger Corman.
Finally, there's Mitch Cohen (Levy) and Mickey Crabbe (O'Hara) - Mitch & Mickey - based on the Canadian folk duo Ian & Sylvia. Long estranged following a break-up after seven hit albums, she's now married to a urinary catheter distributor while he's barely functional after years of mental illness. He's a basket case while she harbors unresolved bitterness and suppressed romantic feelings toward her former partner, feelings symbolized in their signature song, "The Kiss at the End of the Rainbow," in which they would famously kiss at the end. Whether or not that kiss will occur during their performance, or if Mitch will even show up at all, generates a lot of real suspense toward the end.
As with the group's other films, even the minor characters are often hilarious, such as Lars Olfen (Ed Begley, Jr.) the Swedish-American public television representative who, based in New York, feels compelled to pepper his speech with Yiddishisms: "Your dad was like a mishpoche to me," he tells Jonathan. "When I heard I got these tickets to the Folksmen, I let out a geshreeyeh and I'm running around like a vilde chaye." (There are, as well, some funny barbs at the expense of PBS's aging demographics.) Jonathan's obsessive-compulsiveness reaches such ludicrous heights that he warns the theater audience of the pointy branches and "dangerously low hanging vines" in the floral arrangement out in the lobby.
A Mighty Wind, of course, is really poking fun at one particular facet of folk music, its largely apolitical, less activist wing more concerned with catchy, sprightly songs and a clean-cut image. Unlike, say, those mining bad movies for comic purposes, the makers of A Mighty Wind aren't sneering at its subject matter. Rather, they're very slightly exaggerating some of its goofier extremes, aided by a combination of obvious knowledge and affection. The end result, with genuinely good if humorous original ‘60s-style folk songs performed at the climatic concert, manages to be both funny and rousing at the same time, something perhaps even the filmmakers hadn't fully anticipated.
Video & Audio
Warner Archive's new Blu-ray of A Mighty Wind looks great in its 1.85:1 1080p form, despite being shot in Super 16, the format popular with European television producers on shows such as Poirot. Detail is excellent, colors are bright and the contrast is good. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio is particularly good, and accompanied by optional English subtitles. The disc itself is region-free.
Bountiful supplements include an audio commentary by Guest and Levy and nearly half an hour of deleted scenes, material so good it's a shame it wasn't included in the theatrical cut. Also included is the "Live TV Broadcast" version of the concert, wonderful in that it shows the complete performances without cutaways. There's also the various groups' vintage "Television Appearances" (including some cut scenes). All of these extras also include commentary tracks. Finally, there's a trailer (in HD) and soundtrack album promo.
A little masterpiece of film comedy, A Mighty Wind is terrific and gets a great looking and sounding Blu-ray loaded with extras. It's a DVD Talk Collector Series title.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His new documentary and latest audio commentary, for the British Film Institute's Blu-ray of Rashomon, is now available.