Tapping Into ''A Mighty Wind''

Jun 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Maureen Droney


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A Mighty Wind won't save the music industry, but it will definitely provide it with some much-needed laughs. Remember the folk trio who opened for Spinal Tap in actor/director Christopher Guest's beloved 1984 mockumentary? Well, they're back. Twenty years later, with more pounds and less hair, still being, as Michael McKean, Spinal Tap/The Folksmen guitarist describes, “not really incompetent…just kind of tasteless.”

Guest went on from acting in This Is Spinal Tap to write and direct Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, both oddly endearing films that demonstrated his unique ability to skewer with compassion. Now, Guest has turned his attention back to the music industry, specifically, self-righteous folksters of the '60s.

The setup: When Irving Steinbloom, the Bill Graham of folk music, passes away, his family stages a reunion tribute concert featuring three of his biggest groups: The Folksmen, Mitch and Mickey, and the nine-piece (or “neuftet”) New Main Street Singers. Interviews are interspersed with flashbacks and rehearsals, all culminating in a live concert filmed at Los Angeles' Orpheum theater and recorded by Le Mobile.

For Wind, Guest brought back his regular acting ensemble, including co-writer Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Fred Willard and John Michael Higgins, along with music producer C.J. Vanston, also a veteran of both Guffman and Show. This time around, Vanston had his hands very full, because, well, the actors in the movie had to play their own instruments. The catch? Many of them didn't know how before they got involved in Wind. In testimony to the power of great acting, they not only learned to play and sing, but some of them also penned tunes for the film.

Vanston has played live with Spinal Tap for 11 years, so he's familiar with The Folksmen — Guest, McKean and Tap bassist Harry Shearer — who are actually, in real life, excellent musicians who have played together for over 20 years. “They opened for themselves at Spinal Tap's Carnegie Hall show, and the audience didn't recognize them,” Vanston says with a laugh. “The reaction when people realize who they are is one of the most amazing things I've seen in show business.”

Prior to filming, approximately 25 songs were recorded over a period of 14 months by Vanston and engineers David Cole, Charlie Bouis and Ed Cherney. Those songs make up the film soundtrack and the soundtrack album (out on T Bone Burnett's DMZ imprint).

“We started by hooking up the actors with teachers so they could learn their instruments,” recalls Vanston. “Then we got them rehearsed, and arranged and recorded all the song demos. In all, there were 17 musician/actors who also did all the singing and harmonies.”

The journey began at Leeds Rehearsal Studios in North Hollywood, where Bouis, who also works with the Le Mobile remote truck, has a recording studio. The actors set up on a stage and began recording and videotaping rehearsals. “What was interesting,” comments Vanston, “was that their acting skill transcended so much. Being such good actors, they were able to commit themselves totally to the music; even more, in some ways, than a lot of the musical artists I work with.”

Actor Higgins, who portrays one of the New Main Street Singers, is in real life a connoisseur of the Swingle Singers, Up With People-style music that the Main Streeters' songs were based on. He became the vocal arranger for those cheerfully overwrought cuts, which were among the most difficult to record.

Bouis' Pro Tools and Yamaha DM2000 setup came in handy. “We got the band onstage, put them in position and began experimenting with miking, because they didn't want to see a lot of the mics,” he explains. “I put up something like three Neumann 87s to cover the whole band and a couple of close mics that were hidden. We wanted to see what kind of recording we'd get if we had to make it look like an old-style recording. But we knew that when it came to mixing the film, C.J. would want some control over the individual instruments. We contacted Shure, and Jack Kontney and Tom Krajecki helped us out with their WL50 lavalier mics and also PSM 700 wireless in-ear monitor systems.”

After rehearsals, recording moved on to Vanston's Treehouse Studios. “We kept it tube-sounding,” says Vanston, who records in Emagic's Logic Version 6. “We used all the ‘Gucci’ vintage mic pre's for recording, particularly Neve 1073s and my Universal Audio 6176, which is a killer box. We transferred though Apogee DA 16 converters to analog for the mix [by Cherney at The Village], then to Pro Tools for the dubbing stage.”

The climax of the movie is the concert, filmed in front of 700 extras. The Shure lavaliers were an essential component, mounted on the bridges of everything from upright bass and banjo to autoharp. “There were about 20 musician mics and eight mics for audience reaction and ambience,” says Bouis, who worked the show with Le Mobile's Ted Barela and Ian Charbonneau. “We used SM 58s for the regular vocal mics, and just about every person also had a lav mic that we taped on guitars, kind of hidden. As they are really tiny-profile mics, we could do that. It worked really well, because it enabled flexibility in the mix to match up sounds with the visual focus.”

Vanston gives high marks to music editor Fernand Bos of Lowdown Music, who matched up the myriad music takes to picture, something that — due to the novice musicians — had to be particularly challenging. (Did we mention that Guest works from outlines, rather than scripts, and all dialog is improvised?)

“Chris' movies have a very evolved kind of humor,” concludes Vanston. “It's very gratifying to work on something knowing people who see it are going to laugh and have a good time. It was a ton of work, but it doesn't come off that way. And word's getting out; yesterday, I got an e-mail from the Kingston Trio inviting us to a cookout and asking us to bring our guitars!”

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