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A Mighty Wind: 20 Years Later





For almost two months in the spring of 2003, during my senior year of high school, you could hear an echo in the school halls every few minutes from one of us kids yelling, "WHA' HAPPENED?!" - a catchphrase from Fred Willard's character Mike LaFontaine in Christopher Guest's mockumentary film A Mighty Wind. Something about this movie really affected us, and at the time, though I absolutely loved A Mighty Wind, I wasn't sure why this quirky story about a reunion concert featuring three washed-up folk music groups from the 1960s had caught on like wildfire amongst a bunch of jaded teenage Millennials in the early aughts.



I have revisited the film many, many times in the 20 years since its release and I think I know the answer now. A Mighty Wind is Christopher Guest's third comedy film featuring his company of actors after Waiting for Guffman in 1996 and Best in Show in 2000. (1984’s This is Spinal Tap also features most of the company and was co-written by Guest, but it was directed by Rob Reiner, so I don’t consider it to be an official part of the Guest film cycle). While it's always fun to see legendary performers like Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban, Paul Dooley, Larry Miller, Ed Begley Jr., Jennifer Coolidge, John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch, Parker Posey, and Guest himself in action playing off of each other (Guest famously creates his films by allowing his actors to improvise their scenes, hewing to a basic plot outline and structure that he co-writes with Levy), what makes A Mighty Wind really sing (so to speak) compared to his other work is by placing the smart, witty comedic stylings of these strong improvisational actors around a pivotal storyline that is quite sad, which is a significant departure from the zany antics seen in Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show (and of course, This is Spinal Tap).



The film centers around a memorial concert at The Town Hall in New York City, organized by Jonathan Steinbloom (Balaban) and his siblings in honor of their father, Irving Steinbloom, a folk music producer who recently passed away. Jonathan, a fastidious and somewhat humorless man (who nonetheless dearly loved Irving) hopes to feature his father's three most famous acts at the concert: The Folksmen, The New Main Street Singers, and Mitch & Mickey. We see the three acts in rehearsals preparing for the show and experiencing various ups and downs during the process, and the film ultimately culminates with a depiction of the concert itself, televised live on the Public Broadcasting Network with the assistance of producer Lars Olfen (Begley Jr.), the child of Swedish immigrants who for some reason peppers his speech with Yiddish slang, and PR Consultants Amber Cole (Coolidge, giving us a taste of her amazing comedic screen presence that two decades later has finally made her a household name after her portrayal of Tanya McQuoid in HBO's The White Lotus) and Wally Fenton (Miller).



The Folksmen are a trio comprised of Mark Shubb, Jerry Palter, and Allan Barrows (Shearer, McKean, and Guest, respectively, - yes, a folk-flavored Spinal Tap reunion!). They were once one of Steinbloom's most popular acts but they haven't played together in years. They are excited to reunite, buoyed by many happy memories of their time together in the 60s, and although there is some tension concerning which of their songs should be included in their setlist, overall, it is clear that they genuinely enjoy working together again.



The New Main Street Singers are a second-generation spin-off of the original Main Street Singers, formed by George Menschell (Dooley), the only living member of the original group, fronted by Terry and Laurie Bohner (Higgins and Lynch), and prominently featuring Sissy Knox (Posey), the daughter of Fred Knox (an original Main Street Singer). In their new incarnation, they are managed by Mike LaFontaine (Willard), a former actor who appeared in a very short-lived 1970 sitcom called, “Wha' Happened?” and tends to confuse everyone by constantly quoting his sitcom character's catchphrases (including the titular tagline - hence everyone at my high school doing the same for months) and sticking his foot in his mouth at various PR events leading up to the concert by making tasteless jokes. The group is large - nine members in total - and is known for their complex harmonies (what Menschell calls a "neuftet") but they are also deemed the most "commercial" and cheesy of the groups, performing folk songs about stereotypically heavy folk themes in an incongruously carefree way.



And finally, we have Mitch & Mickey (Levy and O'Hara), a former couple who released seven albums together and captured the hearts of their fans with their public image of pure, innocent, romantic love. They would end performances of their biggest hit, "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow," by actually kissing each other on stage, to the delight of one and all. But behind the scenes, the relationship was troubled by Mitch's frequent infidelity, substance abuse, and gambling problems and Mickey's growing anger towards him, and they broke up dramatically, ending their creative partnership in the process. When they reunite after nearly 25 years apart to prepare for the concert, Mickey has moved on, she is married to a medical supply salesman and living as a housewife, while Mitch has never fully recovered from his emotional breakdown after Mickey left him and is still suffering from severe mental health issues and erratic behavior. During their rehearsals, romantic tension and personal regrets come to the forefront for both of them, which ends up nearly threatening their performance in the concert.



And here, folks is the emotional foundation of A Mighty Wind. The lynchpin of the entire film is Mitch and Mickey’s relationship and their story. While the other actors in the film portray their characters and storylines with the wickedly funny comedic improvisation that one would expect from a Christopher Guest film, Levy and O'Hara play the Mitch and Mickey storyline completely straight. They reminisce about how they first met (he stepped in to fight a heckler at a folk club where she was performing with her sisters and got badly beaten up), remember the joy of creativity they experienced working with each other, and awkwardly stumble around how to end a performance of "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" now, with all of this loaded history behind them. There is a real poignancy to this storyline, as Mickey reflects that their fame was based on how their audiences believed them to be a perfect, golden couple - and she believed it too. "That's why I was able to sell it so well." And again later, when Mitch recalls the exhilaration and anticipation they always felt before each gig and Mickey confesses that she was always so nervous during shows that the only way she could ground herself was to ignore the audience and focus solely on Mitch. "I wonder if that will happen again?" Mitch wonders, "Oh, it will," Mickey says, "And I'll be there in the best seat in the house."



Reader, every time I see this scene I tear up.



There are some moments of humor in the Mitch and Mickey storyline, but they are darker, bitter humor. Mitch has a tendency to ramble nonsensically when he is nervous, but while it makes you chuckle, it’s clear that his verbal eccentricities are a result of his mental illness. Similarly, Mickey has a wildly funny outburst minutes before their set at the concert, as she, Jonathan, and Lars look for Mitch, who has gone missing, and she asks them sharply if there is a cock-fighting arena nearby, her French-Canadian-inflected accent increasing tenfold in her heightened emotional state. But again, this is also a dark joke, as you can see how much anger and hurt she still holds towards Mitch, who has obviously done this to her before (not to mention the implication that her first instinct as to where Mitch would have disappeared to is a place where he could gamble). When Mitch finally turns up, it's revealed he went wandering out into Times Square to look for a rose to place on stage for their set, and Mickey's rage melts away, so completely touched by this lovely gesture from him. With this one panicked scene, a whole relationship's worth of anguish and pain is revealed, and you understand the intensity of their love and how terribly it fell apart.



The concert begins with a hitch: The New Main Street singers start their opening set with a folk standard called "Never Did No Wanderin'" which The Folksmen were also intending to feature during their set. The Folksmen express frustration backstage hearing this unfold, especially since they always perform this song in a passionate, emotional manner in the spirit of the song's lyrics, whereas the New Main Street singers do it in their usual peppy, show-boating way. The bad feelings this engenders, along with The Folksmen having to scramble to stretch their set to fill time while Jonathan, Lars, and Mickey search for Mitch, threaten to mar the success of the concert. But when Mitch and Mickey finally go onstage to perform and the other two groups realize that they are going to sing "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow", everyone begins to wonder whether Mitch and Mickey will go through with the onstage kiss as they did when they were young and still in love, and they gather in the wings with Jonathan, waiting together to see what happens.



Who knew that a memorial concert featuring three throwback acts of various levels of musical irrelevance could feel so high-stakes? And all resting on a potential kiss at the end of a sweet little love song?



I won't tell you what happens. You just need to watch this movie.



Mitch and Mickey's professional and personal reconciliation is what ultimately brings all of the singers together in a place of true exuberance and collaboration for one final song, and gives the memorial concert real depth and meaning. Six months later, we see that the three groups have all come out of this experience for the better in very different ways, given their disparate goals and values as artists. Mike LaFontaine has brokered a deal for The New Main Street Singers to star on a sitcom as Supreme Court judges ("The Supreme Folk"). The Folksmen have decided to permanently reunite and tour again (mostly at casinos in upstate New York), and Mark Shubb (their upright bass player) comes out as transgender - a kind of random character swerve that is nonetheless handled surprisingly respectfully for a 20-year-old film made when trans rights and visibility were still often played for cruel laughs.


And Mitch and Mickey? Well, again, I won't tell you what happens. You really just need to watch this movie.



In my eyes, A Mighty Wind is the best film of Christopher Guest's oeuvre. The amount of work and love that went into authentically recreating aspects of the folk music scene of the 60s is astonishing - every song featured in the film is an original composition, written by Guest, Levy, Shearer, O'Hara, McKean, and his wife Annette O'Toole, but they sound uncannily like real folk music of the time period. John Michael Higgins arranged all of the complicated nine-part harmonies for the Main Street Singers, which is a staggering feat. Every single actor portraying one of the musicians did their own singing and played live in the film and for the soundtrack album. McKean and O'Toole were nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song for "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow," marking the first time one of Guest's films was recognized by the Motion Picture Academy (while sadly they didn't win, viewers did get to see Levy and O'Hara perform the song live during the 2004 telecast as Mitch and Mickey). And the title song, "A Mighty Wind," won a Grammy in 2004 for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television, or Other Visual Media.



The folk music verisimilitude and awards and accolades are not really what sets A Mighty Wind apart from Guest's other work. What makes this film so wonderful and so powerful was Guest's choice to have Levy and O'Hara portray the Mitch and Mickey storyline completely straight, showing the raw feelings and brokenness of these two characters and the love they used to share, and the real sadness of the loss of that love and the innocence that accompanied it. I don't think my high school pals and I were emotionally mature enough, back in 2003, to recognize that the Mitch and Mickey story was the true heart of the film, so that's why we ran around screaming "WHA' HAPPENED?!" at each other and laughing like idiots. But with the hindsight of 20 years - an entire lifetime, during which I have experienced my own forms of love and heartbreak and innocence lost - it's clear to me that the strength of this film lies completely within Mitch and Mickey's story, and that’s why it still holds up so well now. And even if we didn't fully realize it back then, Mitch and Mickey are in fact, subconsciously, what so deeply moved a bunch of jaded teenage Millennials in the early aughts.



A Mighty Wind is available on Amazon Prime. Like I said, if you haven't seen it yet, please go rent it now. And if you have seen it - watch it again. As Irving Steinbloom used to say about The Main Street Singers, it's "the kind of infectious that's it’s good to spread around."




 


Reeya Banerjee

Staff Writer

Reeya is a musician and writer based in New York's Capital District. Her debut album, “The Way Up,” was released on January 27, 2022. She can frequently be seen in her car on the NYS Thruway cursing traffic on her way to the Hudson Valley for band rehearsals or to Brooklyn for recording sessions. In her other life, she works as a staff accountant for a management company that oversees veterinary practices nationwide, enjoys watching Law & Order SVU returns while eating gummy bears, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use.

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