Should I Watch..? 'This Is Spinal Tap'
What's the big deal?
This Is Spinal Tap is a musical mockumentary film released in 1984 which was directed and co-written by Rob Reiner. The film is a spoof documentary exploring the history of fictional English rock band Spinal Tap as the band gears up for a massive US tour. The film stars Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Reiner himself as well as cameo appearances from Ed Begley Jr, Patrick Macnee, Billy Crystal, Dana Carvey and Tracey Ullman. The film deliberately satirises the documentary films made with bands like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones and has been warmly received by numerous musicians as perhaps being closer to the truth than intended. Originally only a minor success when it was first released, the film has developed such a cult following that the fictional band quickly became a real one that have released three albums so far. The film was selected for preservation at the US National Film Registry in 2002.
What's it about?
The film is introduced by film-maker Marty Di Bergi who introduces us to England's loudest band, Spinal Tap. Comprised of childhood friends Nigel Tufnel and David St. Hubbins on guitars and vocals, bassist Derek Smalls, keyboardist Viv Savage and drummer Mich Shrimpton (the latest in a long line of unfortunate drummers), the band are gearing up for a tour in 1982 of the US to publicise their forthcoming album Smell The Glove. While their manager Ian Faith sorts out the tour details, the film looks back at the band's origins as The Thamesmen who were originally into flower power before transitioning to heavy metal in 1970 with the album Brainhammer.
However, the tour proves disastrous on a number of fronts - poor ticket sales force the band to cancel a number of performances and major retailers are refusing to stock Smell The Glove due to its overtly sexist artwork. With David increasingly being manipulated by his astrologist girlfriend Jeanine and with tensions rising between the band and Faith - especially after a mix-up over a model of Stonehenge - can the band find the major success they've always dreamed of in America or will the band itself fall apart?
David St. Hubbins
Marty Di Bergi
Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer & Rob Reiner
Release Date (UK)
4th May, 1984
Comedy, Documentary, Music
What's to like?
As a self-confessed fan of both heavy metal and what I call 'Dad rock', This Is Spinal Tap is one of those films that speaks directly to me. But thankfully, it's funny even if you have better tastes in music than me. We are all familiar with self-indulgent rock bands or musicians and film-makers caught up in their sphere of influence, a tradition that continues today with films like Gaga: Five Foot Two and The Beatles: Eight Days A Week. But it's testament to the creative juices of everyone involved (the film was mostly improvised) that this film not only makes Spinal Tap feel like an actual band but that their various mishaps could have been taken from real life. We can imagine people behaving with the level of arrogance displayed by St Hubbins and Tufnel, possibly because of the film's influence over the years. And some of us don't have to - musicians like Jimmy Page, Dee Snider, Ozzy Osbourne and Jerry Cantrell have all claimed to have got lost in arenas trying to get on stage.
The movie might be perceived as a mocking parody of rock and roll but it feels like there's a genuine love for the music beneath the surface. The concert footage, which is just as funny as the backstage segments due to songs like Hell Hole, Sex Farm and Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight, looks and sounds amazing as the cast somehow perform these songs with a straight face. But thanks to its improvised dialogue, the film really feels like an actual documentary and not just a set-up for comic segments. Unlike other mockumentaries that followed it, this film works hard at being a documentary as well as a comedy and it's why this film remains the benchmark for the competition in the years since.
- Other musicians have had a less positive response to the film. Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler failed to laugh at the film because their then-recent album Rock In A Hard Place featured Stonehenge on the cover. U2's The Edge also claimed in the documentary It Might Get Loud that he didn't laugh at the film - he wept because it was so close to the truth.
- As the film was improvised by the entire cast, there was an appeal to the Writer's Guild to give proper credit to the whole cast. The Guild voted 15-0 that the credits should only apply to Reiner, Guest, McKean and Shearer.
- The movie is responsible for the phrase 'turned to eleven' to signify something being excessively amplified beyond normal limits or something that is similar to something else because of mislabelling. In a nod to the film, IMDb's page on the film indicates that its score is out of eleven instead of ten.
What's not to like?
Looking at This Is Spinal Tap objectively, there are a few minor things I took exception to. Because the dialogue is improvised, it means that scenes have little structure so characters talk over each other all the time. Fine for the film's sense of realism but not so good for the film's cohesion. There is a narrative of sorts but the constant chatter makes it difficult to follow in places. A long list of secondary characters, often only appearing in one scene, also struggle to make any significant impact because we identify the main characters more. At least the backstage chaos of an actual rock tour is faithfully replicated.
But other than feeling like a seminal film of the Eighties, this movie doesn't do a whole lot wrong. Endlessly quotable and still very funny, This Is Spinal Tap is a loving and beloved tribute to heavy metal bands blighted by pretensions and rock groups clinging to the vestiges of fame. One other thing that might ruin your enjoyment of the film is the spookily similar documentary Anvil: The Story Of Anvil which is an actual documentary on an actual band that follows a very similar style to what is seen here. Whether it's intentional or not, the 2008 doc is also very funny but more touching as the pressures of recording and touring threatens the real friendship between the band's co-founders Robb Reiner (true story!) and Steve "Lips" Kudlow.
Should I watch it?
Even if heavy metal is your idea of a nightmare, you'll still find plenty to enjoy in this film which picks apart its subject matter with surgical precision. Effortlessly funny and endlessly quotable, This Is Spinal Tap remains as watchable and as entertaining as it ever was. It might look a little old-school these days compared to the heavily stylised music acts we see too much of today but for rockers young and old, it doesn't get much better than this.
Great For: heavy metal fans, anyone with a sense of humour, Rob Reiner's place in comedy history
Not So Great For: overly serious rockers, the gullible, anyone under the age of 20 who possibly won't understand
What else should I watch?
Christopher Guest - or to give him his full title, The Right Honorable Lord Christopher Haden-Guest - has developed a niche for himself in Hollywood, focusing much of his career on mockumentaries similar in style to Spinal Tap. While appearing in many movies himself, he also found the time to write and direct films such as A Mighty Wind, Best In Show and Waiting For Guffman. Much of Guest's work is improvised and features his co-stars McKean and Shearer as well as an ever-growing list of celebrity cameos. Reiner, as a director, has enjoyed a long and varied career that cover a broad spectrum of subjects and styles from the dramatic coming-of-age story Stand By Me to the fantasy comedy The Princess Bride to fluffy rom-coms like Rumor Has It..., even revered psychological horror films like Misery. Say what you want about the quality of the films but the guy's got range.
These days, musical films are very much in vogue after the financial success of films like Mamma Mia! and the recent revival of A Star Is Born in 2018. The trend continued this year with two biographical efforts in Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody and two live-action Disney remakes - Aladdin and The Lion King, two films that were massively successful at the box office (both took more than $1 billion) but puzzled critics by not adding anything new to the animated originals and often feeling somewhat cold and cynical.
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© 2019 Benjamin Cox