- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2003

Michael McKean has a precise recollection of how the Folksmen were born.
He, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer impersonate the members of this aging close-harmony trio in Mr. Guest's delightful new improvisational comedy, "A Mighty Wind." The Folksmen are one of three vintage acts recruited to perform at a memorial concert for a recently deceased patron of the folk rock idiom during the late 1960s.
Promoting the movie as part of a tour that included an invitational showing at the new American Film Institute Silver Theatre, Mr. McKean and Mr. Shearer chatted with the press in one suite at the Four Seasons Hotel while Mr. Guest and Eugene Levy, who collaborated on the screenplay and plays another principal role opposite leading lady Catherine O'Hara, shared the workload in a suite across the hall.
Like the comedy format used in three of Mr. Guest's movies "Waiting For Guffman," "Best of Show" and now "A Mighty Wind" the Folksmen date back to "This Is Spinal Tap" almost 20 years ago. On that occasion, the Guest-McKean-Shearer team portrayed members of a British heavy metal band, facing collapse while traveling between ill-omened concert dates in the United States.
"We had a photo session as Spinal Tap for Rolling Stone," Mr. McKean recalls. "They wanted to take some shots without the wigs, out of costume. To show what we really looked like, you know. We looked at the Polaroid test shots and came to a speedy consensus: 'Boy, we look like a washed-up folk trio.' That seemed to have possibilities, but we didn't capitalize on them right away."
When "This Is Spinal Tap" attracted a following, all three performers were offered jobs on "Saturday Night Live." Mr. Guest and Mr. Shearer accepted. Mr. McKean remained in Los Angeles, but he did agree to play host to a show in fall 1984. "That was when we did the Folksmen for the first time publicly," he says. "We had been working on it, of course, kind of secretly. It was our Manhattan Project."
Mr. Shearer interjects, "More of a Lower Manhattan Project."
"Anyway," Mr. McKean resumes, "we did it several times in 1993, during a folk festival at UCLA, among other things. We did some quick benefit gigs. In 2001, we finally opened for Spinal Tap as the Folksmen. It was really fun. We got booed offstage, put on different heads and came right out again."
"As ourselves," Mr. Shearer muses. "As a matter of fact, there were two concerts. The first one, at Carnegie Hall, attracted a crowd that was pretty much aware of the double impersonation. It was a subsequent one that had an audience which was kind of in the dark and really wanted to hear Tap and only Tap."
The partners simulate the disapproving "Tap, Tap, Tap" chant that greeted their warm-up masquerade as the Folksmen. "We can't break character and plead that we're the same guys," Mr. Shearer says. "So we got booed off and came right back."
"It's a peculiar feeling," Mr. McKean says.
Mr. Shearer was the original Los Angeles member of the group. He began working as a child actor in the late 1940s. He played juvenile roles on Jack Benny's radio show, including Mr. Benny as a child, for several years. He was an expendable Eddie Haskell in the pilot for "Leave It to Beaver." He was in the first CinemaScope spectacle, "The Robe," an enormous hit in 1953.
The McKean-Shearer friendship began in 1970, when Mr. McKean was talked into moving from New York City to Los Angeles by a mutual friend, David Lander.
"Harry and David were part of a group called the Credibility Gap," Mr. McKean says. "It was a satirical news show on an AM radio station. David kept asking me to come out, so I did and eventually became a part of the group. So I met his L.A. friend and partner Harry Shearer. And later his good friend, Chris Guest. Everybody was David's friend. Rob Reiner was his friend."
The Folksmen, according to Mr. Guest, "were just these three guys who couldn't get out of their '60s rut. When I decided to do another film, I wanted it to be something with music. I had played folk music in the village when I was a kid. It was an area I knew. … The humor element was added when I began working for National Lampoon in 1970, doing material for the revues and albums as well as the magazine. I should mention that I started as a bluegrass player, principally on the mandolin, and bluegrass people looked at pop folk musicians with a sour expression. They felt that bluegrass was a pure form and more difficult to play. That reinforced the snobbish outlook."
Mr. Levy, who grew up in the Toronto area, recalls liking and playing "the kind of commercial folk stuff that Chris might have looked down on when he was young." Mr. Levy was in a group that "sang our versions of all the stuff that was out there, Chad Mitchell, the Limeliters, everyone we liked listening to." The part he liked best was singing harmony. He still does.
"To this day," Mr. Levy affirms, "I'd much rather listen to a group with great close harmony than a solo voice."
Unlike Woody Allen at the time of "Everyone Says I Love You," Mr. Guest was persuaded that doing a musical comedy for the camera without a capable cast of singers was foolhardy. Belatedly, he discovered that Mr. Levy had joined a moonlighting quartet during the production of "Best in Show."
"I was always conscious of casting the new film with singers," Mr. Guest explains. "I knew I could rely on Gene, Catherine, John Michael Higgins, Parker Posey, and the three of us who'd been playing the Folksmen all along. We were going to end with a live concert sequence where people would have to get up in front of an audience and play."
While editing "Best of Show," Mr. Guest had been struck by a patch of singing on the soundtrack after a take was concluded.
"What's going on?" I asked myself. "I looked into it and found that Michael Higgins had arranged this thing they were singing. They'd get together between takes. It was Michael and Gene and Catherine and Jane Lynch. So when planning the next movie, I asked Michael if he'd be willing to arrange all the vocal parts for our ensemble group, the New Main Street Singers. He jumped at the chance and turned out to be enormously knowledgeable about pop vocal groups in general, which was a great gift for us."
Mr. Levy recalls that the quartet formed spontaneously.
"We would run off and find a room with an echo," he explains. Mr. Higgins was their vocal instructor. "Michael would teach us songs, and we got pretty good at three or four," Mr. Levy says. "'Somebody Loves Me' was a good one. And 'Silent Night.' It was getting close to Christmas at the time. Michael devised an amazing arrangement for us. I loved doing that. It's still our only carol. We aren't ready for a Christmas album. But don't overlook the album for the movie. There were several songs that didn't make the final cut. You'll find them on the album."
The uncut song score numbers 17, according to Mr. Guest. "I don't see any dailies while we're shooting," he explains. "There are just too many. And we did all the musical numbers live for this film. People were very well prepared, and it went smoothly. On 'Guffman,' we had only one day in a recording studio and lip-synced to that session. At the end of the picture, I sit down with the editor and watch everything we've got. It becomes evident quickly what is on story and what is not. Even if it's funny, [some material needs to be] put aside. Fortunately, some of that, about an hour or so, can also be preserved now as a supplement in the DVD edition."
There are no untapped pretexts waiting to be realized by Mr. Guest and his collaborators.
"If I have an idea that fits this style, great," he says. "It does have to be something that fits the style first. Nothing promising has popped into our heads since completing 'A Mighty Wind.'
"There is something inherently funnier about this way of working. It stimulates something in me and the other people that a conventionally scripted comedy would not. I hope another good idea occurs to us. Where else do you get to work with so much freedom?"

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