Christopher Guest Plays it Straight at Berklee

  Christopher Guest (holding guitar) sings with Berklee student and faculty musicians during his tribute concert on December 1.
  Photos by Phil Farnsworth

"We want to do this in a way that we don't end up the subject matter of Chris's next film," joked Vice President for Academic Affairs and International Programs Larry Monroe at the start of a recent visit to the college by satirist Christopher Guest. During his two days on campus, Guest received an honorary degree and participated in a pair of clinics and a concert of his music at the Berklee Performance Center (BPC).

Monroe's playful concern was not unfounded. Some of Guest's most famous movies, This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind, parody clueless musicians. Yet the films also show a hearty amount of sympathy for them, owing to Guest's lifelong involvement with music.

Though best known as an actor and film director, Guest's current project is making an instrumental CD with his friend, alumnus David Nichtern '71. The album is a serious musical effort that's not as unusual for Guest as it might seem. Before appearing in This Is Spinal Tap, Guest worked as a musician for nearly 20 years. He attended the High School of Music & Art in New York and toured with Michael McKean's band Lenny & the Squigtones. Guest told the Berklee audience that the Squigtones tour provided much of the material for Spinal Tap.

From the left: President Roger Brown, Christopher Guest, and Berklee Board of Trustees member Ernie Boch Jr.  

Guest quickly lowered expectations for the comedy quotient of the clinics. "One thing I've never done is stand-up comedy," he said. "I don't even know any jokes." But true to form, he answered questions with his characteristic deadpan humor. In discussing his work, Guest told the Berklee audience that making the 2006 film For Your Consideration was a real challenge. "In making parodies, we have to pull back from reality; it's too stupid or too sad," he said. He also shared an anecdote that he has not incorporated into his films. Guest recalled a meeting during which he delivered a pitch for his first movie, and a studio executive fell asleep. Startled awake a few moments later, the exec blurted out, "Great, let's do it!"

In awarding Guest the honorary degree, President Roger Brown cited his work as an actor and director of seven films, and his 2003 Grammy Award for the title track for A Mighty Wind. "I've been very fortunate. I get to make films, make music in films, and play stadiums wearing a wig," Guest said as he accepted the degree. "Wow, this is really difficult to believe. Thank you so much; this is an amazing honor."

Reflecting the fact that Guest's career has blended film and music, the BPC concert began with clips from Guest's movies before transitioning into live performances mid-song. Berklee students sang the leads on most songs, while Guest played guitar and mandolin or just looked on appreciatively at the student and faculty musicians.

The set was interspersed with video footage of famous musicians congratulating Guest on receiving the honorary doctorate. Steve Vai warned him that he wasn't a real doctor and advised him not to "operate on anything but a G-string." Elvis Costello played Guest's "Penny for Your Thoughts" and said Guest has "the soul and ear of an artist, but considerably more wit." Aerosmith bassist Tom Hamilton recalled an occasion when his band opened for Spinal Tap. "We all got completely wasted and destroyed a hotel room," Hamilton said. "Cops came and arrested Nigel [Guest's Spinal Tap persona] and took him to jail for destroying the room - he's not going to see this, is he?"

-Brenda Pike