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Giving a Folk 

A Mighty Wind takes the piss out of folkies, but in the best possible way

Wednesday, Nov 5 2003
Here in the world of music criticism, we altweekly writers have a reputation for being snide, snarky, and dismissive. Pick up the Chronicle and you'll find intelligent, respectable pop critics reviewing Lisa Marie's concert, the kind of show I'd rather send a Ninja to than seriously critique. (Speaking of which, look out for Rock Ninja!'s Randy Newman review in two weeks in these pages.)

Yes, I am a cynic, hard-bitten at that, and about the only comfort I get out of nurturing such an attitude is knowing that I am not alone. There are droves of music lovers -- professional and amateur -- who hate the state of music as much as I do; who find most bands laughable at best, complete frauds at worst; and who are offended by the way musicians parade around like paladins, taking themselves oh-so-seriously because, after all, they made a record.

What's important to keep in mind, though, is that deep down, we foster this scorn out of love. Underneath the quips and the chiding is optimism -- hope for the way things could be, perhaps for the way they really are, if only we could view the whole state of affairs through the right set of lenses, rather than through these scratched, out-of-focus Coke-bottle thingies we've got. Christopher Guest and his merry troupe of actors have such a lens, and they use it to shoot movies like Best in Show, This Is Spinal Tap (which Rob Reiner directed but which is arguably Guest and company's vision), and, most recently, A Mighty Wind, which is coming to town this week in the form of a staged play.

For anyone who didn't see the movie, A Mighty Wind follows the story of three groups of folk musicians who have long since passed their prime. When an impresario of the groups' '60s folk scene dies, the bands plan a tribute concert to him, which means dusting off the old guitars, banjos, and autoharps for a stroll down memory lane. Like Guest's other films, this one plays on the earnestness and sincerity with which its characters approach their passions, regardless of how silly they may seem to outsiders. In describing Guest's style, critics usually employ the term "mockumentary" (i.e., fictionalized documentary), a word Guest has decried in many an interview: He's not mocking anyone. To claim that he's doing so misses the point of his films.

Take the case of Spinal Tap, a movie that was, along with The Blues Brothers, one of the first attempts to dispel the myth that rock stars are infallible deities. This Is Spinal Tap tells the tale of three hapless heavy-metal musicians trying to cope with a severe decline in popularity as the '70s melt into the '80s. It's a satire on groups like Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, and Black Sabbath (timely then, but odd now considering that Led Zeppelin had a No. 1 album this year, Aerosmith a gi-normous stadium tour, and Ozzy Osbourne -- well, you know). While Spinal Tap includes scenes like the band getting lost backstage trying to find its way to its own show and bassist Derek Smalls (played by Harry Shearer) getting caught with a foil-wrapped cucumber stuffed down his pants at an airport metal detector, ultimately it's a loving sendup of heavy metal's awkward adolescence, rather than a callous inside joke. The underlying affection Guest has for these characters explains the film's warm-and-fuzzy happy ending; why the subject of the movie -- the band itself -- was able to sell out concert halls when it spun off into a stage show; and why name-brand musicians like Jeff Beck, Joe Satriani, T-Bone Burnett, and others joined the group for a 1992 "comeback" album, Break Like the Wind (which includes one of my favorite Spinal Tap song titles, "The Sun Never Sweats").

A Mighty Wind achieves a similar kind of satire, but if you think it's a cynical film, that's probably more a reflection of your own attitude than the movie's. The picture sharply pokes fun at real '60s folk acts like Ian & Sylvia, the New Christy Minstrels, and the Kingston Trio, groups that surely could use a jab in the ribs. (One journalist, writing for the almanac All Music, stated that there are "people whose music left the landscape, and the definition of popular music, altered completely with its arrival. The Kingston Trio were one such group." Sheesh.)

What distinguishes Guest's lampoonery is the degree of accuracy he strives for. Guest insisted that all the actors (15 total) learn to play their instruments and perform the intricate vocal harmonies arranged for the original songs the director and his songwriting team composed. For the movie's finale, in which the three groups appear together onstage in New York City, the actors are actually singing and playing, not lip-syncing or miming, as would be protocol on any other movie set. This attention to detail is just the tip of the iceberg -- Guest and company also created extensive back-stories for each of the characters, countless album covers for all of the bands, and additional songs that didn't make it into the film. They've given us not only something to laugh at, but also a capsule of history, a carefully nuanced portrayal of a forgotten and important, though goofy, period in popular music.

"It's not about humiliating the audience or the characters," Guest said in a New York Times interview back in March, when the film opened at the South by Southwest festival. "This movie, I hope, is not arrogant because it's not about that, at this point in my life. It's not a considered thing, not that 'Well, if you're smart enough and hip enough, maybe you can keep up' message to the audience."

Here in the age of reality TV, we, as members of a collective audience, have become alarmingly cynical. While we used to laugh with characters like Lucy Ricardo and Archie Bunker and Bill Cosby and even the gauche contestants on The Price Is Right, today we're expected to laugh at the bumblers in Paradise Hotel or Making the Band or whatever show is in the top ratings slot tonight. Unlike in Guest's films, the subjects being laughed at aren't in on the joke. What was once fun for all is now fun only for some; what was once an inclusion-oriented culture playfully making fun of itself is now an exclusion-oriented culture in which bullies humiliate desperate, unwitting "contestants" as we complicitly, smugly watch on.

The story of music -- how it gets made and who makes it -- like people eating bugs in the Amazon or arguing about who gets to sleep with whom at a tropical resort, is pretty fucking dumb. Most musicians are inarticulate yet think they're geniuses; many lack talent yet are worshipped nonetheless. The drama that surrounds their pursuit is as loony as any Monty Python sketch. It is a stupid industry, but an industry fueled primarily by earnest, passionate artists who unselfconsciously adore the pure, robust tone of a G chord, the warm bath of a three-part harmony, the look on a woman's face when, perched atop her boyfriend's shoulders, she exposes her breasts and screams, "Rock on!"

Popular music may be absurd, but at least on some level it's underscored by a kind of love and hope, and it deserves to be loved and hoped for right back, even if that seems impossible and ridiculous at times. In a funny way -- through his movies and now the Mighty Wind stage show -- Guest is doing just that. His critique of the folk era is sharp but not barbed, sassy but not spiteful, and it represents an attitude that is increasingly rare. At the heart of the music we listen to and criticize are real stories -- even Britney Spears and Fred Durst have them. By telling some of these stories affectionately, Guest is reminding us how to care about those people. Because in case you haven't noticed, a lot of us have forgotten that once upon a time, we did.

A Mighty Wind comes to the San Francisco stage on Sunday, Nov. 9, at 7 p.m. at the Warfield, 982 Market (at Sixth Street), S.F. Tickets are $35; call 775-7722.

About The Author

Garrett Kamps


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