This Is Spinal Tap
(United States, 1984)
The first time I saw This Is Spinal Tap, I laughed so hard that my sides hurt when I was done. Subsequent viewings have proved to me that there's as much wit in the film as there are gut-busting, laughter-inducing moments. Another pleasure associated with Spinal Tap is that the group has become something of a cult phenomenon, and they're still going strong two decades after being brought into existence. The "musicians" have recorded songs, made videos, appeared in concert, and even done a commentary track for the DVD. The same vein of satire that runs through the movie can be seen in all of the other projects. Still, This Is Spinal Tap is their best work - a brilliant satire crafted by a soon-to-be-accomplished director early in his behind-the-camera career and a trio of low-key comedians who understand what real humor is. And, considering the "mockumentary" (or "pseudo-documentary", as it is sometimes called) as an art form, This Is Spinal Tap represents near-perfection. I have seen dozens of this kind of film (including Waiting for Guffman and Best In Show, both from Spinal Tap co-writer and co-star Christopher Guest), and, while there are plenty of good ones out there, nothing has topped This Is Spinal Tap. When a comedy makes me laugh this much, even on a fifth or sixth viewing, I can't ignore it when putting together a "Top 100" list.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
This Is Spinal Tap purports to be the documentary effort of a filmmaker named Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) to chronicle the comeback attempt of his favorite heavy metal group, Spinal Tap. After having been granted unprecedented access to the group's activities, Marty is able to capture the day-to-day grind of what it means to be a rock star on tour. (And, because Spinal Tap isn't at the top of the charts, there's not much glamor.) In addition to concert and behind-the-scenes footage, Marty interviews the three principals of Spinal Tap: lead singer David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), and bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer), as well as the group's shifty manager, Ian Faith (Tony Hendra). Also, after digging through television archives, he uncovers images of the group performing during the mid-'60s (when they were starting out), and during their heyday in the '70s (when they were flower-power folk singers). This Is Spinal Tap is constructed to resemble the work of a genuine low-budget documentarian, except that the tone, instead of being earnest, is mocking.
Despite having a razor-sharp edge, This Is Spinal Tap is actually a gentle (and, at times, almost reverential) satire. The band members are presented as likable buffoons. We laugh at them, but we also feel a degree of affection for them, which is precisely what the filmmakers intend. That's why the ending works not only on a satirical level (lampooning "feel good" conclusions everywhere), but, perhaps surprisingly, on a dramatic level. Most comedies don't get us to the point where we care what happens to the protagonists. This Is Spinal Tap's success in that regard is one of its great (perhaps unsung) strengths. With its wide variety and high quality of comedy, This Is Spinal Tap is virtually guaranteed to appeal to nearly everyone. The film contains everything from laugh aloud moments to scenes that will have even the most dry, humorless viewers smiling with unrestrained mirth. Since 1984, there have been plenty of This Is Spinal Tap imitators, but none have come close to what Reiner and his talented troupe achieved in this mockumentary classic.
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