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”  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 Fariña. (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