The scorchingly funny guys behind “Spinal Tap,” “Waiting for Guffman” and “Best in Show” have produced a kinder, gentler film that is still very, very funny.
Once again, this is a “mockumentary” about a very diverse but earnest and enthusiastic group of people who share a passion that involves performing in front of an audience. This time, the story is set in the world of aging folk musicians. “PBN” (a stand-in for PBS) is going to broadcast a special concert in memory of Irving Steinbloom, a man who was instrumental in the careers of 60’s folk musicians. The groups who will participate are a trio called The Folksmen (Spinal Tap alums Christoper Guest, who also co-wrote and directed, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer), a once-married duo called Mitch and Mickey (co-screenwriter Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara) and the relentlessly perky Main Street Singers — now called the New Main Street Singers because only one of the original group is still participating. This return to the spotlight after so many years creates all kinds of traumas and challenges.
Guest movies always get better on the second viewing, and this one may need three as its best moments are its subtlest, like the fabulously constructed songs that are just one tweak away from the music of the Hootnanny-era, where suburban kids sang folk songs written by slaves and hobos so they could feel more “authentic.”
There are wonderfully choice moments. I loved the riffs by Fred Willard about his brief stint on a sit-com and Ed Begley, Jr.’s Yiddish-peppered discussion of putting the broadcast deal together. Steinbloom’s son (Bob Balaban) is so obssessed with the details of the event that he literally can’t see the forest for the trees — he interrupts the live broadcast to warn the audience in the theater to be careful not to get scratched by the twigs in the floral arrangements. The reconstruction of the historical material is devilishly meticulous, well worth hitting the pause button when it comes to video and DVD.
Parents should know that there is some mature material including references to substance abuse, homosexuality, pornography, and a sex-change operation. Characters use some strong language.
Families who see this movie should talk about the unusual way that Guest and Levy work. They set out the broad outlines of the story and then invite their actors to improvise their parts. How does that make the final version of the movie different from most? Families should also talk about the performers who inspired this movie, like the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Joan Baez. What was it that brought folk music to the forefront in the early 1960’s?
Families who enjoy this movie should see the other Guest films, especially on DVD where they can have the added pleasure of seeing them a second time with the commentary by Guest and Levy. They might also try to see “Festival,” a 1967 documentary featuring Joan Baez, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Bob Dylan.