Howling at 'A Mighty Wind'

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As
a man of the mid-’fifties who barely survived the nuttiness
of the late ‘sixties, I share only one thing culturally with
the loonies of the late ‘sixties: a lack of nostalgia for the
music of the early ‘sixties (the Beach Boys excepted).

Now, along
comes A
Mighty Wind
,
which does to the folk music scene of the early ‘sixties what
I always wanted to do myself. This “mockumentary” is a very
funny movie. The music is toe-tapping and pure vanilla, just
as the Kingston Trio’s music always was (the utterly out-of-character,
pre-Sinatra “It Was a Very Good Year” [1961] excepted).

I
appreciate talent. The performers in this movie are amazingly
talented. First, they are funny. They are creative — a
lot of the dialogue was obviously ad-libbed. That the others
on-screen, not to mention the crew, could keep a straight face
is simply amazing. And the newly composed music is both authentic
sounding and not lip-synched.

The plot
of the movie is simple: Irving Steinbloom has died. He was the
legendary — or maybe forgotten — impresario of the
folk music scene of the 1960′s. His son Jonathan decides to
hold a concert in honor of his father, bringing together his
father’s most popular acts. Jonathan Steinbloom is played to
a neurotic T by Bob Balaban, one of the most gifted — “Who
was that? I’ve seen him before” — actors in Hollywood.
(You probably saw him play the driven, unscrupulous U.S. attorney
in Absence
of Malice
two decades ago. After that . . . ?)

The
movie is a parody of the folk music group reunion shows on PBS,
only this time, it’s on PBN. The PBN producer is played hilariously
by Ed Begley, Jr., as the Scandinavian would-be musical performer
whose Yiddish is as contrived as his talent. The show eventually
winds up on satellite — which almost nobody watches in
this era of 18-inch dishes — when he can’t get commercial
support for the show.

The son
rounds up the Big Three acts: “The Folksmen,” “The New Mainstreet
Singers,” and “Mitch & Mickey.” These are the movie’s reincarnations
of The Kingston Trio and its many clones, The New Christy Minstrels/Back
Porch Majority/Up With People assemblages, and Richard and Mimi
Faria. (I was in attendance at the 1961 Joan Baez concert where
she first introduced her 15-year-old sister Mimi to the folk
music world, an artistic faux pas that the public paid for dearly
later in the decade.)

Each
group has its problems. “The Folksmen” had only one hit. “The
New Mainstreet Singers,” as authentic as a toothpaste commercial,
as one of the Folksmen remarks, are headed by a man who suffered
from abuse as a child. His father had locked him in a closet
for days and forced him to listen to Percy Faith albums. And
Mitch was released too early from the mental institution where
he wound up after Mickey dumped him.

My only
regret about the movie is that the director must have cut out
most of Paul Dooley’s scenes. He plays the founder of the original
Mainstreet Singers, but then he disappears from the script.
He has spent his career playing over-the-top but likeable cynics,
such as the used car-selling father in “Breaking
Away
,” and he got off to a good start in this role.

I
was a folk music buff in my era, but of the Leadbelly/Jesse
Fuller
variety. If I wanted contemporary songs written in
a traditional style, I listened to Steve
Gillette
. (I still do.) I do admit to a weakness for the
early (pre-electrification) Bob
Dylan
and the early (Red Shea era) Gordon
Lightfoot
. But it was Flatt
& Scruggs
and the Dillards,
not The Kingston Trio, that got my hard-earned cash. Ian
& Sylvia
bore no musical resemblance to Mitch & Mickey.
So, I am persuaded that the targets of this spoof deserve what
they get. “A Mighty Wind” deliberately ignores the real stuff
that never sold well — blues, old-timey music, bluegrass
— and the late-’sixties stuff that sold too well —
the city-billy protest songs — and concentrates instead
on the commercial world of pabulum folk music. The New Mainstreet
Singers are noticeable, as were the original models, for featuring
too much enthusiasm and way too many guitars.

I saw
the movie on a Friday night. The audience was sparse —
a bad sign for the producer. But there was a lot of laughter.
In a sparsely filled room, laughter is not very contagious,
unlike conditions in a packed hall. So, the message was getting
through. The youthful collegiate faith in moral uplift through
commercial imitations of the roots music of the non-matriculating
American people faded three decades ago, but the true believers
of 1962 can still look with a benign eye at what they were.
Arthritic toes still tap.

The
movie is not mean-spirited. That is why it works. The people
on-screen still believe in the essential worth of the era’s
faded hopes. They really do dream of making a comeback, of reviving
the lost innocence and lost enthusiasm of 1962, as well as 1962′s
reality-challenged echoes through 1968.

There
is one scene that completely cracked me up. I started laughing
— alone — presumably because of the repressed after-effects
of my isolated status in 1962 as a conservative. At the end
of their set, The Folksmen are forced to remain on-stage, unprepared,
because the next group is missing. What to do to fill the time?
One of them mentions the Spanish Civil War, and then turns it
over to the “resident historian” of the group, who launches
into a detailed nostalgic review of that failed exercise in
Communist bloodletting. Here was an aging veteran of the early
1960′s, whose knowledge of the Spanish Civil War in his prime
probably came from liner notes of one of Moe Asch’s poorer selling
Folkways albums, grimly reciting the details leading up to the
Grand Failure. I got the giggles, as the very hip script writers
had intended. The seriousness of the commitment of the ‘sixties’
middle-class folkies to failed Leftist causes of the 1930′s
was one of the truly amusing aspects of the era. I thought so
then, and I think so now. If I believed in the nearby presence
of the dead, I would have imagined the raucous, high-pitched
laughter of Murray Rothbard next to me.

I hope
“A Mighty Wind” enjoys a long run in the theaters, but I fear
that it will be on DVD sooner than I would prefer. So, for those
of you who flip the channel during the PBS fund-raising week
whenever the local station runs the folk group reunion, I recommend
that you get to your local theater fast, before this gem of
a spoof is replaced by the latest teen-flick. This is a teen-flick
for aging teens who are willing to accept the fact that they
repeatedly overdosed on multiple guitars in 1962.

May
19, 2003

Gary
North is the author of Mises
on Money
. Visit http://www.freebooks.com.
For a free subscription to Gary North’s twice-weekly economics newsletter,
click
here
.

Gary
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