Tuesday, January 6, 2009

"There's a nurse on duty if you don't feel right."

What’s your favourite bit from This is Spinal Tap? “This one goes to eleven” is wonderful, sure, and one of the few gags in the history of the cinema to retain its original brilliance, and oomph after nearly thirty years. Stonehenge is another one, not to mention Derek Smalls’s (Harry Shearer) comment during the post-gig group discussion – after the gigantic (or miniscule) fuck-up on stage – that they might want to restage the number the following night with different choreography. Or Smalls, again, but this time reacting to news that the record company is experimenting with the band’s new album cover: “They have monkeys opening it?”

Sure enough, those are all sublime moments from one of the greatest films of all time. Yet, what I find most delightful are the slightly less zany moments, the emotional heart of the film itself – the relationship between the bandmates. Michael McKean’s Christopher St Hubbins and Smalls at a roof party marking the end of Tap’s ill-fated American tour, and possibly their careers, babbling on about their long-abandoned dream projects (“You’re a naughty one, saucy Jack”). Or the sheer frustruation tinged with a sense of sudden loss and deep sadness as St Hubbins declares that he and Nigel Tufnell (Christopher Guest) shan’t work together ever again. Then there’s the single, most tremendous moment in the entire film as Tufnell comes to visit the band backstage before one last gig, and, after a confrontational exchange with St Hubbins, asks him to do a great show.

It is those little moments of character and emotion that resonate the most, and they have always been mainstays of Guest’s mockumentaries. Both Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show feature groups of people with questionable intellects, and Guest and his exceptional troupe of actors always approach the characters with sympathy and pathos, providing a genuine core of emotion to the enveloping farce. In A Mighty Wind, the pathos, for the first time in a Guest feature, takes centre stage, and it’s somewhat overwhelming. Roger Ebert, for example, wrote in his review, “(T)he key characters in "A Mighty Wind," especially (Eugene) Levy and (Catherine) O'Hara, take on a certain weight of complexity and realism that edges away from comedy and toward sincere soap opera.”

A Mighty Wind is, indeed, a somewhat uneven film. The parts that make it up are rather splendid, but they fail to cohere – the naïveté of the performers and folk music as a whole are too nice a target, especially the way they’re refashioned in the film. Guest approaches the people, as well as the songs, with such genuine compassion and tenderness that, by the end of the film, the satire aspect has gone right out the window. But, seeing these incredibly talented actors, with an obvious love for the project, perform at the top of their game – not just acting, but also performing the songs, including a brilliant little ditty chronicling the chronicles of a wanderer, who never quite managed to wander – I was unable not to fall in love with it. It’s my favourite of all Christopher Guest films.

The set-up owes a lot to This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show. The death of a folk music mogul inspires his son, Jonathan Steinbloom, underplayed to subtle perfection by Bob Balaban, to organise a memorial concert in his honour, bringing together three of the more successful bands of the oeuvre during its 1960’s heyday: The New Main Street Singers (featuring, among others, Jane Lynch and John Michael Higgins), reduced to performing their acoustic set under the pandemonium of a roller coaster with only one remaining member from the original line-up; The Folksmen (McKean, Guest and Shearer, together again), one-hit wonders, who partake in long and heavy discussions to conclude that their original look might now be considered retro, even though, in the sixties, it was nowtro; and Mitch and Mickey (Levy and O’Hara), former lovers scarred, not just by each other (and, in Mitch’s case, years of psychosis), but also their music. Pretty much everything one expects from such a set-up ends up happening, including temper tantrums, set-list problems, and one major issue with the floral arrangements in the lobby.

The film is not a laugh-riot, that’s for sure. But there are some belly laughs, mostly provided by three veteran actors from Guest’s previous mockumentaries. In his one brief scene, the late great Paul Benedict probably provides the film’s best one-liner (improvised, of course); and Fred Willard and Ed Begley Jr together steal the show, the former as a truly bizarre showbiz agent, and the latter as a Swedish TV producer with a penchant for Yiddish. And some of the songs give “Big Bottom” a run for its money (pay special attention to the last line of the eponymous tune).

Yet what we end up with doesn’t have anything further in common with Guest’s previous directorial efforts. There is an unsettling undercurrent to the leading couple from The New Main Street Singers, one of whom used to be in the, erm, adult movie industry, but is now a modern-day witch, with – this is genius – a cult based on the power of colour, and that aura of unease is always around them, but it doesn’t amount to much. The Folksmen are all too happy to be given a second chance, and one of them even undertakes a drastic change by the end of the film, one that mirrors a certain member of the real-life band Jethro Tull (I used to listen to them, and never heard the end of it from my friends at university). And Mitch and Mickey have such a sweet story, and such a beautiful song, that they leave no room for cynicism, or even true satire. That can only be a good thing.


Kevin J. Olson said...

Man I loved this movie when it came out. I remember my friends and I being the only ones laughing. It has been years since I've seen it but I do remember something about a grown man (the husband of one of the female singers) with a train set making me laugh for some reason, the Folksmen being the best part of the movie, and Fred Willard's catchphrase "what happened?"

Brilliant stuff. You're dead on about the subtleties (Guest already is pretty subtle so I guess it would be the subtle subtleties) of Guest's pictures, especially in Best in Show, which seems to be his most commercially adored.

I love the scene where Guest, as one of the dog owners, is carrying on about the significance of nuts in his life: 'pine nuts, pistachio nuts...' and so on. Prior to that when he's leaving his bait shop to head out on the road for the big dog show, one of his buddies tells him 'you get tired pull over, you get hungry get somethin' to eat'.

I don't know why, but that exchange always had me laughing more than the obvious (and successful) humor of Larry Miller of Jane Lynch's lesbian.

All that to say....great review and you're absolutely correct about the lasting humor of Guest's work, and how the nuances remain burned in my brain much more than the "bigger" or more obvious sight gags.

Great review.

Ali Arikan said...

Fred Willard is great. He has a great line in For Your Consideration: "You know what they say about blind prostitutes. You really have to hand it to them."

bassplyr5150 said...

From Spinal Tap: When David St. Hubbins get's trapped in the Pod, and Over the end credits when it's about the books on tape read by people with the same last names.

"You can't really dust for vomit."

Ali Arikan said...

I love the "you can't really dust for vomit" scene, and it has one of my favourite bits. Talking about a gig they did a while back, David St. Hubbins says it was at a blues-jazz festival, and the other two correct him that it was more like a jazz-blues festival. The camera stays on McKean for a few seconds as he says, under his breath, "blues-jazz festival." Love it.

gc said...

McKean, Guest and Shearer are brilliant writers - thus the success of Tap.

Wind had more comedy misses than hits because the actors were allowed to write their own dialog, contrive their own character, and even design their own costumes.