What should be the criteria for voting for Best Original Song for an Academy Award? Should an Academy voter just pick the song they think is best on its own, or should how a song works in concert with the film it is part of be part of that consideration? In the eight decades that the category has been part of the Academy Awards, it seems as if there has never been a consensus. Some years the Award goes to a song like The Wizard Of Oz‘s “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” a song integral to the film. Other years, the Award goes to a song whose sole purpose seems to be something to play while the end credits roll.
Personally, I am of the opinion that a Best Original Song recipient should be as functional to the film and the telling of its story as the movie’s production design or cinematography. In a stage musical, a song can help move the plot along, allow a character to express their emotional state or both. But in film, there is a bit more flexibility to how a song can be used. It can help underline an emotion or create an ironic countrepoint to a scene. And, as in the case of “A Kiss At The End Of The Rainbow” in Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind, it can provide an important element that provides a sweet emotional core to the story.
Like all of Guest’s work, A Mighty Wind is a loosely improvised documentary-style comedy, with this film looking at three classic folk groups from the 1960s reuniting to perform a tribute concert for their recently deceased common manager. Guest, who has been drawing satirical inspiration from folk music all the way back to his National Lampoon’s Radio Hour work in the 1970s, patterned the trio of acts in the film on three archetypal folk groups. The Folksmen – which featured Guest as well as his Spinal Tap band mates Harry Shearer and Michael McKean – were actually a pre-existing comedic conceit, having been created by the three for a November 1984 episode of Saturday Night Live on which McKean was guest hosting while Shearer and Guest were cast members. (See first two videos below.) Their chief inspiration was folk icons The Kingston Trio, whose original members had staged a reunion concert a few years earlier. For the Main Street Singers, Guest filtered the earnest but bland and cloying sensibilities of the New Christy Minstrels through his comedic prism while duo Mitch And Mickey (SCTV castmates Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara) are unequivocally drawn from Ian and Sylvia.
And the music for the three groups equally played with a number of tropes to be found in the folk revival of the 1950s and `60s. The film is littered with snippets of songs about coal mine and railroad disaters (artfully combined into “Blood On The Tracks”), wanderlust (“Never Did No Wanderin'”), non-denominational spirituals (“The Good Book Song”) sad, doomed love (“The Ballad Of Bobby and June”) and mythical counterculture hangouts (“Old Joe’s Place”). (The full versions of all songs from A Mighty Wind, plus a couple of extra ones that didn’t make it in are on the film’s soundtrack, which is well worth the listen.)
And then there’s “A Kiss At The End Of The Rainbow.” Written by McKean and his wife, actress Annette O’Toole (see video below for their rendition) the song is an important part of the heart of A Mighty Wind – the story line of Mitch and Mickey. As the pair begin to work together for the first time in decades preparing for the concert, the movie slowly fills in their backstory of their relationship and how it fell apart. So much of their success hinged on their image as a sweet young couple, solidified when Mitch kissed Mickey on live television at the climax of their song “Kiss At The End Of The Rainbow.” An iconic moment in the world of the film, and one tinged by the fact that after their breakup, Mitch had a series of very public emotional breakdowns while Mickey quietly withdrew from public life and got married.
“I wonder how they’re going to handle the kiss?” Jerry (McKean) of the Folksmen asks his band mates when Mitch and Mickey take the stage, before all three charge out of their dressing room to watch from the theater’ wings. It’s the question that the movie has been setting up for the previous two acts. And while it is fun to see all of the performers finally on stage for the titular closing number, this is the real moment that the audience is waiting for thanks in no little part to Levy and O’Hara’s performances. (Performances they recreated for that year’s Oscar ceremony when they sang the song.)
But 2004 was the year of Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King. As the climactic installment of Peter Jackson’s epic fantasy trilogy, the Academy wound up giving the film Oscars in all eleven categories it was nominated in. And that included Best Original Song, where “Kiss At The End of The Rainbow” was nominated against Return of The King‘s “Into The West.” And while “Into The West” is a fine song, it is one of those songs that play over the closing credits. What little it does in continuing the mood of the film’s ending – in which hero hobbit Frodo departs Middle Earth to sail west over towards an Elven homeland – it just doesn’t compare to how important “Kiss” is to A Mighty Wind as a film. And in everyone’s zeal to give Peter Jackson all the awards for Lord Of The Rings that year, the song that perhaps best served its film’s narrative needs was overlooked.