A Mighty Wind

They'd like to teach the world to sing
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The gag everyone loves and quotes from This Is Spinal Tap - Christopher Guest's greatest-hit albatross, his "A Whiter Shade of Pale" - is the one about the amps that don't just go up to 10 but right up to 11. That film's director, Rob Reiner, boosted the farce to 11 as often as he could, but Guest's own mock-documentary comedies since - Best in Show, about the championship dog circuit, and Waiting For Guffman, about small-town theatrics - have maintained a steady, dry satirical seven or eight. In A Mighty Wind, though, the comic volume wavers all over the place, once or twice to an ungainly nine, mostly down in the twos and threes; by Guest's standards, it's disappointingly unfocused.

Given Guest's technique, it's a miracle that there's any control in his films at all. Famously, he and co-writer Eugene Levy devise characters and a story outline, then have a large repertory cast improvise their lines, ending up with as much as 80 hours of filmed material. Usually, you're left gasping for DVD extras, to see what gold dust was left behind. This time, you suspect that they had to reclaim some shavings off the floor to make the material stretch.

The problem is partly that Guest's mock-doc format is beginning to look a little transparent, too fixed: one hates to harp on about The Office, but it has set a new standard in combining satirical precision with the illusion of docu-style informality. By comparison, Guest's cutting between staged set-ups looks somewhat staid. But the main drawback of A Mighty Wind is that its subject either wasn't worth looking into in the first place, or needed to be looked into more deeply, with a more corrosive gaze. That subject is the Fifties/Sixties American folk boom - folk not as Dylan, Baez and Phil Ochs, but folk at its cosiest, entertainers in jumpers singing upbeat campfire ditties.

It's the world of Peter, Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio, the New Christy Minstrels - a subject that surely wasn't crying out to be lampooned any more than British cinema is crying out for a satire of the skiffle years.

But much of the joke, precisely, is that Guest's subjects are dinosaurs and were pretty much toothless in the first place, yet live under the delusion that they were a vital part of history. What gives these harmless misfits a certain fond dignity is that, 40 years on, they can still turn a brisk tune. The premise is that a veteran folk-boom impresario has died and his son is reuniting the era's leading lights in a tribute concert. They include the Folksmen, a trio of amiable also-rans, played by smooth-chopped Michael McKean, a weird-bearded Harry Shearer, and Guest himself with an Einstein look and a sheep-like hippie bleat: in other words, Spinal Tap reunited and even more ludicrously coiffed. The New Main Street Singers are the latest incarnation of a squeaky-clean "neuftet" specialising in fluoride smiles and matching pastels. And finally, Mitch and Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara) are a lovebird duo whose break-up led to Mitch's breakdown and recording of such woebegone solo albums as Cry For Help. Now Mitch has shambled back, sadder and hairier, to be reunited with Mickey, living in suburbia with a catheter salesman husband.

If A Mighty Wind resembles any music-biz satire, it's less Spinal Tap than Robert Altman's Nashville, for various reasons. One is that Guest's company, like Altman's, write and sing their own material. Much of it, while it won't necessarily make you laugh, nevertheless has the ring of close parody, especially Mitch and Mickey's glutinous but rather touching "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow". And the tone of the performances is dead right: the Main Street lot's murderously grinning professionalism, the Folksmen's self-congratulatory chuckling through the same lame gags they've milked over six decades.

Also like Nashville, A Mighty Wind makes the most of peripheral material not directly related to the subject. Some of the best has little to do with the music: the eternal fussing of impresario Steinbloom, played by the dormouse-like Bob Balaban; or Jim Piddock as Mickey's English husband, entertaining Mitch with dinner-table talk about "impacted faecal material". But much of this side-salad material just drifts in and out again, as if Guest's ear were picking up stray signals.

The film is well tuned to a certain archaic language that evokes a whole lost world: a line such as, "We were at a hootenanny and we were jamming with the Clapper Family", sounds as authentically distant as Aramaic. And alongside the clowning, there's some real emotional charge. Levy's Mitch may be slightly over-baked with his frazzled diction, as if having his lines dictated over a faulty link from Mars, but you believe in the kind of Sixties burnout he represents; while Catherine O'Hara's Mickey, her nerves bared and a-tremble with uneasy vibrations, genuinely and touchingly makes you believe she's grieving over a wasted life and love.

Finally, though, you can't help feeling that such superb acting is lavished on material that's uncharacteristically thin for Guest and co. Waiting For Guffman (straight-to-video here, but seek it out) was a spot-on anatomy of small-time American hopefulness, while Best in Show was superbly perceptive about the way that an enclosed cultural universe creates its artificial hierarchies and rituals. A Mighty Wind is about a world that, even in its youthful prime, was middle-aged and benign, and Guest has correspondingly made a rather gentle, benign comedy. Authentic as they sound, its folk parodies don't actually pack that much more satiric charge than the Two Ronnies' folk spoof Jehosaphat and Jones.

Where the film does show some bite is in its wry view of the commercialism that the folkies were steeped in from the start, regardless of their supposed idealism. Stealing the film hands down as the embodiment of showbiz at its crassest is Fred Willard, who played the cretinous commentator in Best in Show. Here, as a manager, he's a variation on the same enthusiastically self-promoting idiot, tirelessly trying to foist his stale comedy catchphrases on the world.

Willard pushes his comic volume up to 11 all right, with a muscular feverishness that's irresistible: his character's hot air truly is the mighty wind that blows this film along.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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