Folk music provided a vibrant and inspiring soundtrack for American progressive politics for two decades or so after the midpoint of the last century. That is not the reason to make sure you catch A Mighty Wind, Christopher Guest's affectionately wicked folk movement parody.
Instead, enjoy it for the many moments of genuine comic relief it provides as the Bush bunch and The Matrix reload in what augurs to be a long, sweaty summer of our discontent. Aptly compared to This Is Spinal Tap in approach (mockumentary), participants and results (sharp skewers piercing inflated cultural and personal cliches), it's yet another of Guest's delightful illuminations of the absurdity lurking just beneath the surface of American life. As he did with regional theater in Waiting For Guffman and the kennel club crowd in Best Of Show, the onetime National Lampoon writer &emdash; where is a national humor magazine now that we really need one? &emdash; creates the most lovable gangs of buffoons and hypocrites and then draws comedic blood from their most vulnerable foibles.
But as much as I chuckled and even guffawed through A Mighty Wind, I also kept pondering what it might have been. For such thoughts, blame and thanks must be credited to David Hadju, author of the recent tome Positively Fourth Street, which traced the early '60s story of the king and queen (Bob Dylan & Joan Baez) and prince and princess (Richard & Mimi Farina) of the folk movement at its height (and is highly recommended reading). In a recent Sunday New York Times Arts & Leisure story, Hadju noted the total absence of politics from the film's mise en scene; ironic, given the centrality of social and political commentary and commitment was to folk music.
I don't want to spoil an enjoyable cinematic experience by carping. (And run to see A Mighty Wind while you can, since it seems to be drifting out into a hectic film marketplace, as is so often the case with small treasures in a business obsessed with blockbusters.) But from even the trailer and then the film itself, it keeps hinting at something greater and maybe even funnier.
The folkies of A Mighty Wind seem modeled on The Kingston Trio, The New Christy Minstrels and maybe Sonny & Cher rather than more pungent models like Peter, Paul & Mary, The Weavers and the Farinas &emdash; hence the faux folk of the film is based on faux folk itself. Eugene Levy brilliantly embodies the near-vacant and frazzled psychology of a '60s burnout as the crispier half of the duo Mitch & Mickey. But his look so resembles that of Albert Grossman, the cunning and sometimes cutthroat manager of Dylan and PP&M, that a genuine follower of the real folk deal longs for a parody of its highly ripe silliness, excesses and cherished notions.
Perhaps I'm just wishing for something, anything to kick today's folk music in its fat complacent ass and maybe divert its focus from overly sensitive navel gazing to a wider world where the questions and answers are blowing in the winds of war. The folk world of A Mighty Wind suffers from the same malaise as most all post-'60s folk music &emdash; the near absence of fervent commitment to social commentary and activism.
One ponders how the schism of Dylan's electric conversion at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival might have played as parody, which in reality it almost was: the cloying stage raps of the unctuous Peter Yarrow as the show's MC, the battle royal between Grossman and the acoustic purists backstage, and the myth that the audience was alienated when most of the listeners &emdash; who, like Dylan, had teethed on rock &emdash; were ready to follow Mr. Tambourine Man when he strapped on his Stratocaster and plugged it in. And ultimately the way Dylan's three electric songs were almost atomic in their impact.
Perhaps I doth protest about the lack of protest too much. A Mighty Wind sweetly sings and sharply zings. But given the revisionist history of these Bush II times, what it misses is the fiery gust of folk music at its finest that didn't just reflect but affected the times we lived in then.
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.