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Viewer Guide: “A Mighty Wind” and “Jasper Jones”

September 21, 2022 | Richard Peña

REEL 13 DOUBLE FEATURE | A MIGHTY WIND

A Mighty Wind (2003).

This week’s double feature begins with A Mighty Wind, the 2003 documentary parody directed by Christopher Guest. 

Often referred to as one of the classics of the “mockumentary” genre, there’s actually not all that much mocking going on in this affectionate spoof of a fictional reunion concert of faded 1960s folk acts, and at times the film seems as authentic as the many genuine folk reunion concerts that have long been a staple of PBS programming. With the reunion event nervously supervised by Jonathan Steinbloom, played by Bob Balaban, the concert at New York City’s Town Hall is intended as a tribute to Jonathan’s late father, a longtime talent manager of various folk performers. With only two weeks to put the show together, Jonathan quickly secures the participation of his father’s biggest stars, including: “The Folksmen,” a “Kingston Trio”-style group played by Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean; “The Main Street Singers,” now known in reconstituted form as “The New Main Street Singers,” with Parker Posey, John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch as the troupe’s recent recruits; and “Mitch and Mickey,” a folk duo of former sweethearts played by Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara. 

Also featured in cameo appearances are Fred Willard as a gonzo sitcom star turned talent manager, Ed Begley, Jr., as a producer for the “Public Broadcasting Network” given to frequent Yiddishisms, Paul Dooley as a founding member of The Main Street Singers, and Jennifer Coolidge as public relations specialist with an undefinable accent. The tongue-in-cheek score was largely written by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer in combination with other cast members, and features the Academy Award nominated ballad “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” written by McKean and his wife Annette O’Toole. 

After the blockbuster success of This is Spinal Tap in 1984, Waiting for Guffman in 1996 and Best in Show in 2000, director Christopher Guest had become closely associated with the “mockumentary” genre, but disliked the term in connection with A Mighty Wind given the film’s affectionate celebration of the folk music era. Yet unexpectedly, the inspiration for A Mighty Wind had its origins with Spinal Tap, dating back to a Saturday Night Live episode in 1984 when Guest joined Harry Shearer and Michael McKean to perform as “The Folksmen,” instead of doing yet another Spinal Tap skit. Although A Mighty Wind is completely improvised, Guest and his frequent writing partner Eugene Levy sketched out an overall scenario without dialogue and then allowed their recurring ensemble of collaborating actors to find their way into their characters. But when McKean and his wife Annette O’Toole wrote Mitch & Mickey’s signature song “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow,” Guest worried that the ballad was “too good” to be believable as parody, with the song proving to be so touchingly effective it garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Song. 

REEL 13 DOUBLE FEATURE | JASPER JONES

Jasper Jones (2017).

This week’s double feature continues with Jasper Jones, a 2017 Australian coming-of-age mystery-drama directed by Rachel Perkins. 

Jasper Jones stars Levi Miller as Charlie Bucktin, a 14-year-old living in the fictitious Western Australian town of Corrigan in the mid-1960s. Celebrating the Christmas holidays with his parents Ruth and Wes, played by Toni Collette and Dan Wyllie, Charlie also enjoys debating the merits of DC Comics superheroes with his friend Jeffrey Lu, a Vietnamese immigrant played by Kevin Long, who endures the racist abuse his family encounters with philosophical pragmatism. But Charlie’s world begins to profoundly change when he receives a startling visit from Jasper Jones, a mixed-race Aboriginal teenager played by Aaron L. McGrath, who begs Charlie for his help. Charlie follows Jasper to a secluded pond where he beholds the shocking sight of a teenaged girl hanging from a tree branch. Charlie recognizes her as Jasper’s girlfriend Laura Wishart, whose younger sister Eliza, played by Angourie Rice, has stirred in Charlie his first romantic feelings. With Jasper convinced he’ll be blamed for Laura’s murder due to his outcast status, he persuades Charlie to join him on a search for the real killer, who Jasper is certain must be Mad Jack Lionel, a menacing recluse played by Hugo Weaving. But as the secret murder investigation begins intruding into both Charlie’s family life and his budding feelings for Eliza, the truth about “Mad Jack” reveals a radical new dimension to Jasper’s complicated past. 

Based on the 2009 young adult novel by Craig Silvey, Jasper Jones developed a reputation as something of an Australian “To Kill a Mockingbird” due its similarity as a coming-of-age story set in an era of entrenched systemic racism. Given our own complicated past and present regarding racial and ethnic tensions, it’s always enlightening to see how another nation deals with these dynamics. The daughter of Aboriginal activist Charlie Perkins, director Rachel Perkins has often dramatized stories of the contemporary Aboriginal experience in films and TV series including Bran Nue Dae, Total Control and Mystery Road. For Toni Colette and Dan Wyllie, Jasper Jones provided a reunion, with the duo having played brother and sister in the 1994 film Muriel’s Wedding, which launched Colette’s international career. And given their fascination with superheroes, the story’s fictional characters of Charlie Bucktin and Jeffrey Lu would be thrilled to know that Angourie Rice co-starred with Tom Holland in Spider Man: Homecoming in 2017 and its 2019 sequel, Far From Home. 

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema. 

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