Christopher Guest: Mockumentary Director
Christopher Guest: A Legendary Impresario
A Surreal Honorary Degree Ceremony
Honorary-degree presentation ceremonies are usually dignified and tedious events. On the other hand, when you’re honoring the songwriter who conceived Sex Farm and Big Bottom, stoic moderation would seem out of place. Consequently, when Boston’s Berklee College of Music bestowed a doctorate on Christopher Guest this past semester, the college and the honorary recipient embraced the ceremony’s dreamlike ambience. Mr. Guest, the actor, director, and musician whose humorously ironic songs spice up his documentary-style comedies, earned cult-hero status with his role as Nigel Tufnel, the bumbling guitarist from 1984’s hard-rock spoof This Is Spinal Tap.
Once the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony was over, there was time for a real rock and roll show. Mr. Guest joined a group of Berklee students, with whom he had rehearsed for two days, for a round of his greatest hits, some given new arrangements. “My one request about the ceremony was that it could be built around a concert,” Mr. Guest said, “as opposed to just showing up and putting on the cap and gown.”
Berklee usually honors jazz legends, like Ornette Coleman, or pop-music icons, like Aretha Franklin. But the concert showed that Mr. Guest has serious musical talents. The Spinal Tap songs might have been the fan favorites, but Mr. Guest raves about a reworked version of Skeletons of Quinto, a relatively obscure song that was featured only briefly in his 2003 mockumentary, A Mighty Wind. When students asked in one of his Berklee classes about his next project, ever-the-satirist Christopher Guest joked, “It’s a movie about a music school in Boston. Students learning jazz, what they go through.” The students filling the Berklee Performance Center laughed nervously. Their worry was understandable. Some of Guest’s more renowned films, This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind, parody musicians. Yet the films also have a hearty amount of sympathy for them, owing to Guest’s own involvement with music.
However, more serious music is not as unusual for Guest as it might seem. He’d been a musician for almost twenty years before This Is Spinal Tap, attending the High School of Music and Art in New York and touring with his longtime collaborator Michael McKean’s Lenny and the Squigtones. Guest approached the music clinics somewhat apprehensive of students expecting him to be funny. “The one thing I’ve never done is stand-up comedy. I don’t even know any jokes,” he said. But his answers to students’ questions were couched in his own sense of deadpan humor. Often, his first response was a simple one-syllable answer. He’d wait a beat for the crowd to shift uncomfortably, then elaborate.
Asked by students what the biggest challenge of his career had been, Guest joked, “This has been.” But getting serious for a moment, he said that, “Making parodies is difficult, we have to pull back from reality-it’s too stupid or sad,” he said. He shared with the students an anecdote that he was never able to include in the movie: In the middle of Guest pitching his first movie, a studio executive fell asleep. The executive was startled awake a few moments later, and the first words out of his mouth were “Great, let’s do it.”
As was fitting in honoring a career that blends film and music, the tribute concert began with clips from his movies, then transitioned into a live performance in the middle of “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight.” Berklee students sang lead on most songs, with Guest either playing electric guitar or just looking on appreciatively. A full band backed them up, including piano, trumpets, saxophones, violins, and cello.
The performances themselves were interspersed with videos of musicians congratulating Guest on his honorary doctorate. Steve Vai warned him that he wasn’t a real doctor, so he shouldn’t “operate on anything but a G-string.” Elvis Costello played a bit of A Mighty Wind’s “Penny for Your Thoughts” and said Guest has “the soul and ear of an artist, but considerably more wit.” Tom Hamilton joked that Aerosmith opened for Spinal Tap, and “we all got completely wasted and destroyed the room. Cops came and arrested Nigel and took him to jail for destroying the hotel room. He’s not going to see this, is he?”
Guest took it all in stride, working the crowd like a pro. And for the last song, the wall between performers and audience melted as over 50 student and faculty bassists filled the aisles for a rendition of Big Bottom that broke Spinal Tap’s previous record of 15 bassists onstage. It was a grand finale worthy of the greatest excesses of heavy metal-and of Guest’s films.
“Up until an hour ago I thought this was a practical joke,” Guest cracked as he took the podium at the Berklee Performance Center. But the actor, director, composer, and musician’s body of work is no laughing matter. As the night’s MC, Larry Monroe said that at a clinic Guest taught earlier in the day, “His music is solid. There are gags in the lyrics, but there are no gags in the music.” And the audience saw the strength in the music firsthand as Berklee students and faculty joined Guest onstage for straight covers and unique interpretations of the songs from his movies This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, and A Mighty Wind.
Guest Performing with Berklee Students and Faculty
A Mighty Wind: Christopher Guest’s Trompe L’oeil Satire
Christopher Guest’s Pseudo-Documentaries
In Guest’s films, beloved by so many that they can recite the lines by heart, his characters have grand dreams. In Waiting for Guffman, the citizens of Blaine (MO), want their community-theater production to move to Broadway; in Best in Show, a variety of dog owners push their pooches to win top prize at a Westminster-like show; in This Is Spinal Tap, washed-up rockers give a doomed comeback tour their all; in A Mighty Wind, three folk acts whose 15 minutes of fame expired 35 years earlier get a crack at a comeback. Guest has respect and affection for the oddballs he creates. No matter how absurd their circumstances, he always takes them seriously, which only makes them funnier. Their wrenching heartbreaks and tiny triumphs make them exactly like us.
In A Mighty Wind, Mr. Guest, his writing collaborator Eugene Levy (who also plays Mitch), and their goofy deadpan ensemble have decided to resuscitate the commercial folk music that survives nowadays mostly at summer camp sing-alongs and on public television, and they have done so with sweet-natured, goofy affection. Like the small-town troupers in Guffman and the dog-show competitors in Best in Show, the pickers and chirpers of A Mighty Wind are immune to embarrassment and utterly devoted to their own peculiar notions of artistic accomplishment and show-business glory. They are, it must be said, pretty good at making bad music. The soundtrack, full of swaybacked metaphors, rousing choruses and mind-numbing harmonies, may yet make stars of Mitch and Mickey and their fake-folk comrades, the Folksmen and the New Main Street Singers. Sincerity is the hallmark of this kind of music, and the parody of it that Mr. Guest and his company offer here is often indistinguishable from the real thing.
A Mighty Wind: Pretty Good at Making Bad Music
The Title Song: A Mighty Wind
A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow
The film’s pseudo-documentary narrative is built around a memorial concert for Irving Steinbloom, a legendary impresario. The event is organized by Steinbloom’s son Jonathan (Bob Balaban), a compulsive, unsmiling fellow whose adult personality may owe something to the childhood experience of being forced by his over-protective mother to wear a helmet while playing chess. Jonathan enlists his father’s favorite acts, including the Folksmen (Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, and Mr. Guest) and the New Main Street Singers, a ”neuftet” that blurs the boundary between singing group and cult. (Their leaders, played by John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch, practice a spiritual discipline based on the vibratory power of color.) But the real coup is reuniting Mitch and Mickey (Catherine O’Hara), onetime lovebirds who endured a bad breakup and who have moved on to other things, he to a mental hospital and she to a second marriage to a model-train enthusiast who works in ”the bladder control industry.”
The matter-of-fact absurdity of this last phrase is a hallmark of Mr. Guest and Mr. Levy’s improvisatory comic style. Their jokes are sometimes so subtle as to seem imperceptible, until you realize that they are everywhere, from the broadest gestures to the tiniest details of dress and décor. There is something almost shockingly poignant about the way they portray former lovers who have drifted far from stardom, and from each other, and who are drawn back together by the power of music. The music may be perfectly awful, actually it is both perfect and awful, but its power, this movie suggests, is nothing to laugh at. Or so you might realize, if you could only stop laughing long enough to form such a thought.
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