The mockumentary is a relatively recent genre of storytelling whose origins are probably as recent as the last hundred years. And that’s including all stories that could be considered mockumentaries by stretching the definition. The actual term, “mockumentary,” is even newer. By some accounts it first came into use when Rob Reiner used it to describe his 1984 cult classic This is Spinal Tap. Adding a word to the lexicon could be seen as a pretty big accomplishment for a goofy comedy, but, despite its subject matter, the legacy of this film shouldn’t be downplayed. Few movies live on as long and remain as popular as Spinal Tap has. Every few years a new generation of college kids discover this thing, and its legend just keeps growing.
Far from being an originator, A Mighty Wind is a later film from the crew of mockumentarians led by Christopher Guest. And despite the fact that it’s full of a lot of good work, it often gets a bad rap. Guest and crew’s previous efforts, Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, were so ridiculously funny that A Mighty Wind gets unfairly judged in comparison. And that’s unfortunate for a couple reasons. For one, those first two Guest-directed mockumentaries were such a high water mark for the genre that it was probably unfair to expect them to keep producing at such a level. And secondly, A Mighty Wind goes for funny a bit less that its predecessors, and plays a bit more in the drama pool, and that threw people because it’s an unexpected approach from a movie made this way.
What do they have in common?
Not only are these movies both entries in the same unique genre, but they’re both movies that focus on the music industry as well. Their characters are self-important and deluded in a way that few people other than professional musicians can be, and mining such egomania ends up being pretty fertile grounds for comedy.
Also, they share a ton of the same actors. Spinal Tap and The Folksmen are the same three guys playing two different bands in two different movies. Not only does that show what talented gents Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer are, it also ties these two films together pretty dang closely.
Why is This is Spinal Tap overrated?
This is one of those movies that gets grandfathered into the pantheon of greats because it was so original when it came out. The concept of staging a fake documentary played like a clever stunt back in the early 80s, and the subject matter was perfectly suited to play to a college audience that was being inundated with a tidal wave of hair metal bands at the time; bands who were ripe to get the piss taken out of them. College campuses, even before the Internet, were a perfect place for cult hits to get incubated so they could grow. Colleges are an insular world, where everyone is young and hip and discovery is the name of the game. So even before “going viral” existed, they were the perfect places for hipster cred to become currency, where knowing about this weird, fake documentary had real value. And once “it goes to 11” became an indicator of whether someone was cool or not, there was little chance of this movie being viewed as anything other than a milestone ever again.
But, despite its originality and its handful of enduring catch phrases, does Spinal Tap really hold up as a solid movie all the way though? Sadly, no. The main problem with Spinal Tap is that you just don’t care much about the characters, so it’s hard to watch it repeatedly like you can the best cult films. The Spinal Tap guys are clueless idiots. They’re crass and spoiled, and none of them really learn any lessons or grow over the course of the film. We’re watching this fictional band as their career falls apart, and it becomes a cruel, sadistic experience over time. This movie mocks its own characters, and we’re asked to laugh along with the bully as it does its dirty work. If the filmmakers had more affection for these characters, if they were presented as earnest metalheads instead of hacky jerks who change their band’s image along with every passing trend, Spinal Tap would take up a bigger place in your heart, and you’d want to watch this movie more often to spend time with old friends.
And while the high moments of this film are admittedly pretty high, it’s uneven overall. A lot of that has to do with the pacing of the film and the story being told. We’re watching the disastrous final tour of a band who are on their last legs, sure, but there really isn’t any goal or any big climax in sight. These guys aren’t heading towards anything, they’re just helplessly falling apart. When a classic bit like the souped up amplifier discussion or the criticism of the little bread brought by catering is happening that doesn’t much matter, but during its low points this movie really starts to drag. Things would have been improved greatly if everything was leading to a make-or-break show, or some sort of high stakes milestone, but that isn’t the case at all. The conflict and the conflict resolution of Spinal Tap’s story are both squeezed into its third act, and it feels like a series of sketches riffing on shallow musicians haphazardly trying to wrap itself up more than it feels like an effectively told story.
Why is A Mighty Wind underpraised?
Seeing as it came so much later in the history of mockumentaries, A Mighty Wind is a much more polished entry into the genre than a trailblazer like Spinal Tap. While Spinal Tap has a guerrilla, flying by the seat of their pants feel, this movie is clearly produced by people who have done this before. There aren’t any throwaway scenes, or random appearances from friends of the filmmakers. This is an epically sized cast, and everybody is doing great work. From the biggest role to the smallest, every character in this film is being played by an experienced and hilarious improvisational actor, and when you factor in how many more layers of cleverness are baked into Guest’s films when compared to the work of Reiner, it really shows. There is no down time here, something important to the overall presentation is always happening.
And though A Mighty Wind isn’t as wall-to-wall hilarious as some similar works, it’s interesting in that it explores the ways in which improvisational acting can be used to do more than just create humorous situations. There’s a real melancholy to this movie. We’re focused on musicians who are past their prime, which is heartbreaking, but we’re also watching them as they get one last shot at greatness, which is kind of bittersweet. In addition to creating satire and presenting gags, A Mighty Wind is also a dramatic story about a big moment in the lives of characters that you grow to love.
Throughout this entire movie we’re building to the big reunion show at the end, and along the way we’re constantly learning more about each character involved, being informed of what the stakes are for them as individuals. By the time the big event happens you’re emotionally invested in it in a way you aren’t about anything that you see in Spinal Tap. Rather than just being a formless mess of sketches that are all riffing on a theme, A Mighty Wind is a complete story truly deserving of feature film treatment. And I defy anyone to not get goose bumps when it gets to the point where Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara’s estranged Mitch and Mickey are either going to kiss or have an awkward stage moment during their big performance. That’s the sort of movie magic that deserves to be remembered.
Evening the Odds
Maybe another way to compare these two films would be to look at all of the original songs that make up their soundtracks. Undoubtedly, This is Spinal Tap is full of great songs that have stood the test of time, whether the intent of their creation was humorous or not. If one didn’t take too close a look at tracks like ‘Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight’ or ‘Gimme Some Money’ they wouldn’t appear out of place on a classic rock playlist at all.
But there’s something to be said for The Folksmen’s version of ‘Never Did No Wanderin’’ as well. I wouldn’t mind sitting down and listening to that one on an autumn day. And you wouldn’t judge me if I said that sometimes I listen to ‘A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow’ and cry, would you?