Descending from This Is Spinal Tap, in which Christopher Guest co-starred as a dim-bulb rock star, Guest's recent movies as director have established him as a uniquely smart and quirky satirist of American showbiz subcultures: Waiting for Guffman spoofed small-town community theater, Best in Show sent up the manic world of championship dog shows.
A Mighty Wind, the latest and arguably the best of Guest's films, is not just a major hoot; it's also a hootenanny. The premise: After the death of a legendary music promoter, several of the early-'60s folk acts he discovered are asked to gather in New York's Town Hall for a tribute concert. Thus are we escorted into the variegated lives and career of three folkie ensembles that may seem eerily familiar: The New Main Street Singers (think New Christy Minstrels), the Folksmen (think Kingston Trio) and Mitch and Mickey (think Ian and Sylvia).
Typically, watching a Guest film, you'll hear one or two people screaming with laughter while others quietly chuckle or just smile to themselves; then the screamers will go quiet and one or two of the smilers will start howling. The laughs in A Mighty Wind are again that sly and offbeat. Yet the new film also has a gentle and unexpected depth that centers on the volatile singing duo Mitch and Mickey, played by Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy.
Levy, who co-wrote the movie with Guest, should be declared a national treasure. One of our finest comic actors, he gives the damaged Mickey a fragile dignity that's alternately hilarious and haunting. It's a performance worthy of folk music's own plangent undertones.