This Is Spinal Tap (United States, 1984)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Good comedy stands the test of time. Two of the funniest movies I recall seeing arrived in theaters during the early 1980s. One, Airplane, a spoof of the Airport series (and disaster movies in general), has withered on the vine of changing times. Seen two decades later, it is only sporadically amusing, with many of the best moments diminished because their cultural relevance has evaporated. The other film, This Is Spinal Tap, has withstood the passage of years effortlessly - in fact, it's possible to argue that this movie works better today than it did when it was first released. After all, one of This Is Spinal Tap's goals is to satirize the concept of aging rockers engaging in "comeback" tours and albums, and, while there was plenty of that taking place in the early '80s, it has become more prevalent today. Consider, for example, the strange spectacle of groups comprised of 50-plus year old musicians hitting the road. Heavy metal headbangers might look absurd on the stage in their 30s, but what about when they're nearly old enough to start collecting social security?

This Is Spinal Tap is the comedic brainchild of director Rob Reiner and writers Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer. (These four created Spinal Tap for a 1979 ABC-TV sketch comedy effort called "The T.V. Show". After the pilot generated poor ratings and the program was not picked up by the network, they devised a way to bring the group back in a motion picture.) Guest's participation is especially noteworthy. He found the mockumentary style employed here to be so ripe with possibilities that he applied it to his most successful directorial outings: Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, both of which were nearly as funny and incisive as This Is Spinal Tap.

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 (McKean), guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Guest), and bassist Derek Smalls (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. (The film's "inspiration" is obviously Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz, with perhaps a little of A Hard Day's Night thrown in for good measure.) In fact, Reiner isn't just lampooning Spinal Tap (the group), he's taking a bite out of the music industry and those who make this sort of motion picture.

Despite having a razor-sharp edge, This Is Spinal Tap is actually a gentle (and, at times, almost reverential) satire. (Guest's other mockumentaries shared this trait.) 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.

The film is a composite of classic moments, all of which we sense could have happened to any of the classic heavy metal bands - or at least to those whose members combined delusions of greatness with low I.Q.s. No longer able to fill big arenas, Spinal Tap is forced to lower their standards - such as appearing at a military dance and getting second billing to a puppet show. The dressing rooms are small and shabby and the catered meals consist of lunchmeat with bread that's too small. When the musicians show up for a signing of their latest album, "Smell the Glove" (which has a pure black cover because the original design - of a naked, degraded woman smelling a glove - was rejected by the record company), they're the only ones in the music store. One time, they get lost in the labyrinthine corridors beneath a venue and can't find the stage. There are various mishaps with props (including a representation of a giant rock formation from Stonehenge that's 18 inches high), in-fighting and one-upsmanship, and (of course) the girlfriend from hell (June Chadwick), who looks nothing like Yoko Ono. She ousts Ian and runs the rest of the self-destructing tour into the ground. There's also a scene that works better in this post-9/11 world of tight airport security than ever before. After repeatedly setting off an airport security scanner, Derek is pulled aside and must sheepishly remove a foil-wrapped cucumber from his pants.

Rock musicians tend to be a pretentious lot, regardless of their intelligence and talent level, and the Spinal Tap guys are no exception. The titles of their songs (which include "Hellhole" and "Big Bottom"), however, don't evoke images of artistic greatness. The music represents a solid replica of generic heavy metal material from the time period, and the lyrics are just off-center enough to be fun without going too far afield. Perhaps the real reason for Spinal Tap's success (insofar as they have any) is their loudness. After all, the volume scale on their amplifiers goes up to "11", while most standard amplifiers top out at "10". That's one more, innit?

The Spinal Tap phenomenon didn't stop with the movie. McKean, Guest, and Shearer took their on-screen personas out of the theaters and into the real world, making live appearances as Spinal Tap and generating a cult following for the fictional group. (Once that line has been blurred, can it still be considered fictional?) Spinal Tap took on a life of its own, independent of the movie. Their songs got some airplay and MTV showed at least one of their videos. The acting trio seemed to relish expanding their roles, perhaps because it offered them the opportunity to live out the fantasy of being rock stars (albeit those whose careers are in retrograde). In 1992, there was a Spinal Tap "reunion" special, and the three main players gathered in a room in 2000 to record an in-character DVD commentary track. (It's not as entertaining as the movie itself, but worth listening to if you're a Spinal Tap fan. They take issue with the "hatchet job" performed on them by Marti DiBergi, complaining that he betrayed their trust and used a hidden camera to capture some of the most damning scenes.)

McKean and Guest, employing perfect British accents and wearing the kind of fake hair necessary to look like real rockers, hit the bulls-eye with their performances. Shearer is as good, minus the accent. David Kaff plays Viv Savage, the strung-out keyboardist, and R.J. Parnell is the latest in a long line of doomed drummers. (His predecessors all died under mysterious circumstances, with the previous one having spontaneously combusted on stage.) Then there's Reiner, doing his best imitation of Martin Scorsese from The Last Waltz as he asks the Spinal Tap musicians "tough" and "penetrating" questions. This Is Spinal Tap features a number of cameos, including Billy Crystal, Fran Drescher, Dana Carvey, Ed Begley Jr., Bruno Kirby, Patrick Macnee, Howard Hesseman, Paul Shaffer, and Fred Ward.

Reiner approached This Is Spinal Tap as if it was a real documentary, capturing hundreds of hours of footage of his stars inhabiting their alter egos. (Guest was so impressed by this method that he used it for both Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show.) Significant portions of the movie were improvised, and the final product came together in the editing room. All of the really good stuff appears to be in the final cut (as can be demonstrated by watching the nearly 60 minutes of outtakes on the DVD, none of which are close to the quality of what made it into the film). 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.

This Is Spinal Tap (United States, 1984)

Ranked #77 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:22
U.S. Release Date: 1984-03-02
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1