The conceit of Lemmings is that we’re watching live footage of the Woodchuck Festival, Three Days of Peace, Love, and Death, where people have amassed on a farm in upstate New York to listen to music and kill themselves. It stars very young (and alive) versions of Christopher Guest, John Belushi, and Chevey [sic] Chase. Aided by musician Paul Jacobs and former Miss Arkansas Rhonda Coullet, they play songs spoofing the likes of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker, CSNY, Joni Mitchell, and others.
This doesn’t do the movie any justice.
Guest plays bass and guitar. Chevy’s on drums and Belushi’s on bass, except when Belushi’s on drums and Chevy’s on piano. They all sing. They all sing right on pitch and sound precisely like the people they are making fun of. Guest’s Dylan is phenomenal. Coullet nails Joni and Joan. The songs are funny and actually good and listenable (though the Baez spoof, “Pull the Triggers, Niggers”, while smart at times, made me squeamish).
I can’t imagine anything like this happening today. My thoughts on the shifts in comedy and culture since the 1970s as reflected in National Lampoon have been recorded elsewhere, but watching Lemmings I felt pitiful nostalgia for older notions of talent. I was also reminded of one of the better lines from Guest’s own Waiting for Guffman: “Corky can sing, and dance, and act, and direct, and there’s only one other person in the world who can do all that, and that’s Barbra Streisand.”
Andy Samberg and his Lonely Island cronies come also to mind in terms of multivalent levels of talent, and also certainly what we’re dealing with is just a completely different time and a completely different societal relationship to comedy. Sure, there’s lots in Lemmings that’s just obvious, and lots that kind of dumb. But I mean the final band is called Megadeath [sic] (whose amps go all the way up to 750 decibels, the whole thing a total forerunner to the Tap), and what pleasure it must have been for those guys to watch, ten years later, as Dave Mustaine finds a particularly hardcore name for his metal act.
It streams on Netflix. Spoiler alert: they all die at the end.