'Mighty Wind' Still Blowing Strong For McKean, O'Toole

Actors Add Depth To 'Mighty Wind' Songwriting With Marriage

POSTED: 8:12 am CST November 12, 2003

The songwriting for the utterly hilarious documentary-style comedy "A Mighty Wind" simply blows away its movie music competitors this year. If you want to know why music is important to a movie, "A Mighty Wind is it. Mercifully, the film doesn't jumble nonsensical songs together for the sake of selling a soundtrack.

Here, the music tells the story.

Tim LammersRecently released on DVD, "A Mighty Wind" features songs written by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, the creative forces (along with director Rob Reiner) behind the definitive "rockumentary," 1984's "This is Spinal Tap."

But instead of playing the heavy-metal band suffering a painfully slow decent in obscurity, the trio is back in the movie fold as The Folksmen -- who along with other '60s folk stars Mitch & Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara) and The New Main Street Singers (John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch and Parker Posey) reunite for a memorial concert to celebrate the life of their late promoter.

Michael McKean in 'A Mighty Wind'The great thing is, like "Tap," the instrumental and vocal performances in "A Mighty Wind" are real, and it features songs penned by the trio as well as stars Levy (who co-wrote the script with director Guest), O'Hara and Higgins.

But perhaps the most interesting songwriting dynamic comes with compositions by McKean and his wife, "Smallville" star Annette O'Toole. They wrote three songs for the film: the knee-slapping "Potato's in the Paddy Wagon," the sea shanty "Fare Away" and the ballad "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" -- a wistful love song performed by the once-madly-in-love-but-now-painfully-divorced duo Mitch & Mickey (Levy and O'Hara).

"We actually didn't know how prominent the song was going to be in the movie when we first wrote it," explained O'Toole, who along with McKean joined me for a recent @ The Movies interview. "We had just written 'Potato's in the Paddy Wagon' and Chris Guest really liked it, and he asked Michael to write a song for Mitch and Mickey that required the words 'A Kiss' be in it."

From there, O'Toole and McKean said, the song fell together remarkably easily.

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"Michael came home and asked, 'Would you like to write a song with me? I got this idea for a title called 'A Kiss at the End of a Rainbow.' So we had a couple glasses of wine and wrote it," O'Toole remembered.

But while the creative process went down, well, like a couple of good glasses of wine, the song initially didn't quite taste right to Guest. A little insight from his wife, actress-writer Jamie Lee Curtis, helped raise Guest's spirits.

"Chris really felt it was too much of a straight-up love song for the movie at first, but Jamie convinced him otherwise," O'Toole recalled. "But we did go home and wrote a backup song called "Closer Than Tomorrow" just in case he thought he couldn't use it."

"It was a little more pop, closer to 'Leaving on a Jet Plane' than anything else," McKean added.

But ultimately, it was McKean and O'Toole's love for one another that made "Rainbow" bright. When you hear Levy and O'Hara sing the words "My Sweet, My Dear, My Darling," it's really coming from McKean and O'Toole's hearts.

Annette O'Toole""We just realized the other day that we put the word 'darling' in all of our songs," O'Toole told me. "We were writing words for something else and Michael said, 'Uh oh, darling again.' When we were first together (the couple married in 1999), he said, 'Nobody's ever called me "Darling."' I said, 'I can't believe that' -- I could just cry thinking about it. So, we can certainly relate to love and finding one another when all hope is gone. We've always responded to songs like that."

The next question is whether Oscar voters will respond to the song, granting a Best Original Song nomination that may very well lead to that pot of Oscar gold at the end of February. There's no question that any number of songs from the film are worthy of the honor.

"If we get nominated for any awards, it's going to be such a thrill." McKean said. "But you know what? In the end we just love writing songs. We love having an assignment -- we just wrote a song for the Disney people for an album that's coming out pretty soon. We just love the process and love working together. Here we are together anyway, so we just need to put a pencil or guitar in our hands, and we get to work."

Making It Real

Perhaps the reason the songs from "A Mighty Wind" have such a lasting effect is, despite the haplessness of the characters at times, they feel real. Like his prior films "Waiting for Guffman" and "Best in Show," Guest once again proves with the film that you don't have to go far to find the greatest laughs in life, because they're all alive and well right there in those quirky people known as "us."

In the end, we see ourselves in the films, and you don't have to be a wannabe actor, a dog show exhibitor or folk singer to connect: you just have somebody willing to admit that it's OK to be yourself, no matter how the rest of the world perceives how "odd" you are. If you're unwilling to admit your oddities, well, then you're missing out on a great joke. But while Guest's films are shot documentary style, McKean cautions that the films shouldn't be deemed as "mockumentaries."

"Chris just says they're comedies in documentary style. I think what he bristles at is the notion that he's mocking people," McKean observed. "He does parody people, but he doesn't trash anybody -- even when there are people who are less than charming like the couple Parker Posey and Mike Hitchcock played in Best in Show. They're horrible people, but he's letting them do themselves in. He doesn't feel like he's standing on the outside looking in and saying, 'Look at these idiots.'"

'A Mighty Wind' -- Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Christopher Guest For "A Mighty Wind," McKean says it's not so much the performers being parodied as much as the era in which they were rising to prominence. Because of that approach, true folk acts have been able to enjoy the movie for what it is, and have hardly been offended by its content.

"We've all gotten e-mails from all over from people who said they've run into acts like Peter, Paul and Mary, who said they think the film is a delight," McKean told me. "I think it's because we didn't set out to trash anyone. We were making more fun of the over-commercialization of something very simple and genuine, like folk music, in the late 50s and early 60s, people were looking for something to replace rock and roll, and they assumed rock and roll was going to go away."

Perhaps what McKean enjoys most about being in the Folksmen and Spinal Tap is the parallel universe that he, Guest and Shearer take part in off the screen: Not only can fans enjoy the film, they can become a part of it, in a sense as an audience member when the groups go on tour.

In fact, all three groups from "A Mighty Wind" embarked on a mini-tour of the East Coast in September, and will wrap up a week of dates on the West Coast this week with a show Friday in Seattle.

McKean says the concept of a "Mighty Wind" type tour actually dates back over a decade, but then it only involved The Folksmen.

Derek Smalls, David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel (a.k.a. Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Christopher Guest) in 'This is Spinal Tap'"We fantasized that The Folksmen were the most poorly booked opening act for Spinal Tap you could ever imagine, so we used them in a TV special we did in '92,' McKean explained while O'Toole giggled in the background. But while you got to see them rehearsing, they get bumped from the concert. So in 2001, we said, 'Let's really do this.' We did about 10 gigs all together, and we opened for ourselves for about five of them."

But, unfortunately, some audience members didn't always make the connection -- namely the rockers at Tap's Beacon Theater gig in New York in July 2001.

"The Folksmen got booed off the stage and people were screaming 'We want Tap," O'Toole recalled gleefully.

For you see, there was one big problem. McKean, Guest and Shearer forgot to let concertgoers in one major detail.

"When we played Carnegie Hall that June, we had a picture on the Spinal Tap poster that featured the special guests, The Folksmen. People who looked at the poster for more than 10 seconds got the joke," McKean recalled. "But we forgot to do that when we came back to play the Beacon. We looked at the audience and said, 'Oh my God, we're in trouble.' But it's exactly what those guys would be going through if they were actually opening for Spinal Tap. It was a nice little psychodrama."

I have a feeling that the audience was turned up to "11."

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