leave a comment --Frank Lovece
Smart with heart is a rare combination. Add funny and you're down to about five filmmakers worldwide, and one of them is Christopher Guest. Most will say that Guest, reuniting most of the troupe from his dog-pageant satire BEST IN SHOW (2000) and his community-theater lampoon WAITING FOR GUFFMAN (1996), does for folk music what THIS IS SPINAL TAP did for heavy-metal, but that's a bit too glib: Folk music is as broad, storied and complex as jazz. But this mockumentary (a term Guest says he dislikes, but whatever) does send up the early-'60s "folk revival" and its boomer attendant nostalgia, and like SPINAL TAP (which Guest co-wrote), you don't need to know the music to get it. In a too-short 87 minutes (culled, like the earlier films, from many hours of material improvised along a scripted outline), we spend two weeks with Jonathan Steinbloom (Bob Balaban) as he scrambles to organize a memorial concert for his late father, beloved folk-music producer Irv Steinbloom. Arranging for it to be held at (where else?) New York City's ever-earnest Town Hall and aired live on (where else?) public broadcasting, Jonathan reunites the Folksmen (SPINAL TAP-sters Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer) and the romantic-couple balladeers Mitch & Mickey (Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara), and calls in the New Main Street
Singers, the sort of smiling, overly upbeat group in matching sweater-vests that might still be playing state fairs. (The three acts appear to be loosely based on such groups as the Kingston Trio; Richard and Mimi Fariña by way of one-hit popsters Paul and Paula; and The New Christy Minstrels, respectively.) Anyone who saw BEST IN SHOW and then watched a real dog show on TV might have had a hard time telling them apart, so closely did Guest and his actors understand and empathize with that world. Here, too, they zero in on aficionados' quirks and the music's conventions, from the naively sincere proclamations of peace, love and working-man authenticity to the homogenized packaging of folk-pop. Yet even the most self-absorbed characters here are never pathetic, and the movie's climax is genuinely and unexpectedly
touching. And the songs are great — some are exaggeratedly precious, others could have come right off albums of the era. While the unfortunate epilogue strains the naturalism of what's gone on before and leaves a bit of a sour taste, this semi-improvisational comedy otherwise reaches Balzacian brilliance.