The Film: 5/5
To honor the memory of his recently-deceased father, legendary folk music producer Irving, Jonathan Steinbloom (Bob Balaban) decides to organize a tribute concert spotlighting the reunion of three of Irving’s greatest discoveries to be aired on public television: The Folksmen (Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, and Michael McKean); The New Main Street Singers, currently fronted by Terry Bohner (John Michael Higgins) and his wife Laurie (Jane Lynch); and Mitch Cohen (Eugene Levy) and Mickey Crabbe (Catherine O’Hara), the former sweethearts of the folk scene. Most of these musicians haven’t performed or even handled an instrument in years, but bringing them all together turns out to be the easiest part of Jonathan’s mission. The three members of the Folksmen bicker and fret over the most minor minutiae. The Main Street Singers are comprised primarily of lost and damaged individuals who have found a disturbing salvation in the group’s cult-like order. But it’s the relationship issues between Mitch and Mickey that pose the greatest threat to the concert’s success since Mitch is still recovering from a mental breakdown he suffered following the duo’s disbandment.
People tend to think of names like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Pete Seeger among others whenever the topic of folk music is broached. Believe it or not, there was a time not long before the dawning of the Civil Rights Movement and the escalation of the Vietnam War when folk was less of a sweet chocolate candy shell concealing a hard nugget of bitter truth and more of an optimistic distraction the whole family could enjoy. That form of the genre endures to this day as any regular listener of Prairie Home Companion could attest, but it is rarely afforded the respect it once possessed. Current generations look to those songs as reminders that either America wasn’t always in a state of socio-political turmoil, or it was and we just chose to ignore it. In his sharp and observant 2003 comedy A Mighty Wind, Christopher Guest, the erudite humorist whose backgrounds in stage and screen hilarity and music made him an indispensable player with comic institutions like National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live, used folk music’s earlier incarnation as an entertaining expression of sunny American spirit as a winning excuse for assembling another motley but lovable group of eccentric personalities and exploiting their endless comedic possibilities.
Guest is a legend in the history of hilarity for creating the faux trio of buffoonish British heavy metal divas Spinal Tap with Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, and with music once again the subject of one of his “mockumentaries” he wisely brought back his two most valued collaborators to form one of A Mighty Wind’s merry band of fringe musical groups, the Folksmen. They’re hardly the characters with the greatest comic potential in this movie, though the chemistry between the three actors is as cosmically engaged and symbiotic as ever and their gentle bickering is fun to behold. The Folksmen are comparatively normal when they’re presented alongside the New Main Street Singers, a happy-go-lucky collective of damaged souls looking to suppress their darkest impulses through the majesty of twangy song. The way this particular – and peculiar – merry minstrel gang functions, with their subdued obsessions over band hierarchy and devotion to their white-and-blue uniforms, provides the movie with its fair share of humor, aided in no small part by priceless performances from the likes of John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch, Parker Posey (rarely better than she is when directed by Guest), and the undervalued Paul Dooley.
It's Eugene Levy (who co-wrote the screenplay with Guest) and his fellow SCTV alum, the always golden Catherine O’Hara, who give A Mighty Wind an irresistibly sweet emotional core as the film’s fractured folk duo Mitch & Mickey. Both actors, two of the finest in modern comedy when given the right material, at their absolute best here, with Levy giving the kind of spaced-out yet sympathetic and mirthful performance audiences tend to forget he’s capable after seeing him reduced to the likes of Madea’s Witness Protection and the endless American Pie sequels. His Mitch is a fascinating creation with his bemused glances and halted speech pattern that would suggest a man who has been to the edge and back and forgotten how to connect with the rest of humanity. He has wonderful chemistry with O’Hara, giving her all as the reluctant but forgiving Mickey. Their signature song “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” was written by McKean and his wife, actress Annette O’Toole, and most of the other actors composed their own tunes and performed them live during the third act tribute concert.
The main ensemble shines in every scene, but the smaller parts given to other members of Guest’s gifted repertory company like Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr., Jennifer Coolidge, Jim Piddock, Larry Miller, Michael Hitchcock, Paul Benedict, and Don Lake have their own memorable moments that make A Mighty Wind that much funnier. The great Fred Willard practically commands the screen each time he goes before the camera as the Main Street Singers’ manager, a boorish former sitcom star whose fifteen minutes of fame lasted nowhere nearly as long as he thought.
A Mighty Wind was shot on 16mm film and blown up to 35mm for its theatrical release. As part of their Warner Archive Collection of titles only available for purchase online, Warner Bros. has struck a new 1080p high-definition master using a scan of a 35mm interpositive as a source and did some extra visual maintenance getting the transfer up to modern standards. All in all, they did a fantastic job as the grain is balanced, natural, and true to the 16mm source, while colors look warm and pleasing to the eye. Details look their sharpest and most improved in the close-up shots. The film has been presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track features perfectly audible dialogue and a spacious and undistorted showcase for the many musical sequences. English subtitles have also been included.
Most of the extras presented here were first seen on the 2003 Region 1 DVD and start off with an audio commentary that brings together Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy for a warm and humorous discussion about every possible aspect of the film. Their talk is genial and illuminating and rarely gets bogged down by dead air or stretches of unnecessary narration. Guest and Levy also offer optional commentary for fifteen deleted and extended scenes (22 minutes) that feature such priceless sights as Mitch ruminating on rap music, Larry Miller and Mad TV’s Will Sasso inhaling balloons, and Mitch and Mickey performing a touching number for the concert that was meant to precede their signature tune.
Next we have four “TV Appearances” (9 minutes) with the Folksmen and Mitch and Mickey performing on several non-existent 1960’s shows. The first clip with the Folksmen singing “Children of the Sun” during their “electric” phase had me thinking of Spinal Tap gently rocking out to “Listen to the Flower People”, but the scene with Mitch and Mickey guest starring on a crime show (starring David Puddy himself, Patrick Warburton, no less) had me rolling. Guest and Levy again provide optional commentary for these clips, as they do for “PBN TV Broadcast of the Concert” (23 minutes), a presentation of all six of the performances from the concert finale that were shot on video in order to authentically resemble an actual public television airing. “Extras” is merely two short video clips that originally appeared as Easter Eggs on the previous DVD – one demonstrates how the noise in Mitch’s hotel room was created, while the other presents a practice run at a scene from the finished film with the editors standing in for the actors (one of whom wears a Bob Balaban mask). These bonus morsels also come with…. well, take a wild guess.
The original theatrical trailer (2 minutes) and a Shearer-narrated promotional spot for the film’s soundtrack wrap up the supplements.
A Mighty Wind is one of Christopher Guest’s finest comedies as writer and director (his acting isn’t too shabby either), and he once again gathered a stellar ensemble of first-rate comedic performers to deliver the absurd dialogue and sing the jaunty folk tunes with grace, devotion, and a fondness for the people and genre of music they are satirizing. Warner Archives finally grants this underrated comic gemstone the Blu-ray release it deserves, exquisitely upgraded picture, sound, supplements, and all. This is definitely going on my list of the best Blu-rays of 2016. Highly recommended.