Christopher Guest's movies, like his performances, are generally subtle and always low-key. They are not for people who need laugh tracks to follow the humor and most of his work is so contextually-based that some knowledge of the subject he's dissecting is a definite asset. Guest, who was a performer in the very early SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, is, in many respects, the Anti-Belushi of modern American comedy.
Nevertheless, he shares with Belushi - and many of their contemporaries, who came from one or another branch of the Second City organization - a certain fondness for off-the-wall elements in his work; Guest's tend to be slipped in, quietly, while Belushi's popped out of exploding cakes.
A MIGHTY WIND is a spot-on satire of the American Folk Music movement of the early and mid-1960s. The narrative conceit is a memorial concert for a recently deceased impressario, organized by his son, which reunites three folk groups from the 60s.
The real elements of the film are the send-ups of a variety of tropes of the era, musical styles, personalities, and quite an array of music-business cliches. Remarkably, however, the songs are genuinely entertaining in themselves; both the writing and the performances. They're satirical, but so subtlely performed that it's easy to loose the thread of the lyrics and wind up mindlessly nodding heads and grooving along, which pretty neatly captures the popular music experience for the last several generations. Satire within satire.
The musical performances are excellent, recreating, almost frighteningly, the taste and texture of folk music of the era. And, bringing several real 60s folk acts to mind.
The acting is typical of Guest movies, such as SPINAL TAP and BEST IN SHOW; very quiet, restrained, low-key, with, apparently, a lot of dialogue improvised. The performers are mostly drawn from the same group Guest has used in the past: Eugene Levy (who co-wrote the script with Guest) and Catherine O'Hara, Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, Ed Begley, Jr., and Guest, himself.
Comparisons with Guest's most popular picture, THIS IS SPINAL TAP are both interesting and tricky. Interesting because both movies were written and directed by the same man, and shared most of the same casts. Tricky, because while some seem to compare AMW unfavorably with TIST, a looking at these films, together, they have a lot in common. So much so, in fact, that it's reasonable to consider them a pair; very similar takes on two, distinct musical genres of a similar era. The writing, acting, tone, pacing of these two movies is very similar. The jokes are similar. The points of view are similar. The focus on both performers, and the behind-the-scenes people is similar. The real difference is the music.
This, in turn, tends to suggest that those who react very differently to these two films may be reacting more to the music, directly, and to the ambiance of the world around the particular musical genre more than anything else.
Guest's movies don't have many laugh-out-loud moments. Most of the humor is more the "big-smile", sometimes, the chuckle, kind. But, Ed Begley, Jr. has perhaps his best comic scene, ever, when he does a take as a Swedish-American public television producer dropping Yiddish into his conversation; one word per sentence. It's a totally dead-pan and very quiet performance which, like so much of Christopher Guest's humor, you will either get or not get. If you do, you may fall off your chair.
Eugene Levy, who co-wrote the script, with Guest, is also very good, having finally invented a second character after having spent something more than 30 years (since his Second City TV days) doing variations of one.
Who might enjoy A MIGHTY WIND? Anyone who remembers the era and the music, and anyone who enjoys show business insider takes. It's a more difficult call for those born later. And, if you have trouble keeping Janis Joplin and Joanie Mitchell distinct in your mind, you probably won't follow most of what's going on.