This Is Spinal Tap (1984) differentiates itself from other comedies because it goes the extra mile. There’s a moment when Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), the lead guitarist for the heavy metal band Spinal Tap, is playing a solo on stage. He has just said that his solos are his opportunity to express himself and we can see that. Not only is he whaling away on the guitar in an interesting if not entirely melodic way, but at his feet is a second guitar, which he uses his sneaker to turn on and begin strumming with his foot, creating quite a din. Finally, he takes out a violin and starts rubbing the two instruments’ strings together, producing something that would be difficult to describe as music. This is absurd. It’s the epitome of the overblown, idiotic excess of the band. He’s not even creating identifiable notes on the guitar he has in his hands. He’s just making noise. Then, apparently dissatisfied, he tunes the violin.
This is Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap, a mockumentary about an aging rock band on a tiring tour, and one of the funniest movies ever made. It’s introduced by Marty DiBergi (Reiner) who “directed” the documentary about the band and spent a few months with them on the road, as cancellations and humiliations pile up for the dim but eager boys of Spinal Tap. There’s Tufnel on lead guitar, David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) on vocals and rhythm guitar, Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) on bass, Viv Savage (David Kaff) on keyboards and, on drums … well, there’s no real profit in learning his name; he won’t be around for long. During an interview, the band relates their history, and we discover that Spinal Tap’s iterations have included every genre of British popular music since the ’50s, including skiffle, blues-inspired pop rock, Edwardian austerity, flower power psychedelia and now heavy metal, and it has gone through a half dozen names (“So we became The Originals but we had to change our name actually.” “Well, there was another group in the East End called The Originals and we had to rename ourselves.” “The New Originals”) and three times as many drummers. Thirty–seven and counting actually, and each one has met a bad end, including spontaneous combustion, a mysterious gardening accident and choking on vomit, though it remains a mystery regarding whose. “You can’t dust for vomit,” Derek says.
When Tap begins their tour, it looks as if they are the toast of the musical world. They are treated to limos and are hosted at fancy parties by the head of their record label. By the time the tour finishes, after numerous cancellations, lack of interest and internal shake-ups, the future of the band is in serious doubt. Part of this is because their new album, “Smell the Glove,” which has a sexist cover (“What’s wrong with being sexy?” Nigel asks), is being stonewalled by image–conscious retailers. Another factor is that their onstage act has grown tired, with technical foul-ups such as futuristic pods that don’t open when needed and underwhelming production pieces (“I think that the problem may have been that there was a Stonehenge monument on the stage that was in danger of being crushed by a dwarf,” David grouses). Or perhaps their problem is that, as a critic suggested about the band’s previous album “Intravenus de Milo,” “The musical growth rate of this band cannot even be charted. They are treading water in a sea of retarded sexuality and bad poetry.” Nigel can do little more than snort in defense, “Well, that’s nitpicking, isn’t it?”
Whenever I watch This Is Spinal Tap, I’m reminded of a line from Amadeus, released in the same year, that has a jealous man asking of his rival, “Why would God choose an obscene child to be his instrument?” I very much doubt that God wants anything to do with Spinal Tap, though they did release a “pretentious ponderous collection of religious rock psalms” titled “The Gospel According to Spinal Tap,” but it always strikes me how people so stupid could gain success writing music. Granted, it’s not good music, but it isn’t hard to believe that Spinal Tap would have its following, what with hits like “Sex Farm” and “Big Bottom.”
What makes This Is Spinal Tap such a biting satire is the level of detail it goes to in lampooning the life of an empty-headed, change-with-the-times rock group. Everything they wear is perfect: androgynous, tight-fitting, ridiculous costumes on stage, soccer kits and t-shirts with cartoons on them (i.e. children’s clothes) mixed with tony, posh jackets and scarves off stage. “It’s such a thin line between stupid and clever,” David realizes. How can people who are so firmly on one side of that line be so proficient at creating music? And the intimation toward Amadeus and classical music doesn’t come out of nowhere. Nigel is currently working on an orchestra piece inspired by Mozart and Bach (“It’s a Mach piece.”) titled “Lick My Love Pump,” and he inappropriately borrows a minuetto from Boccherini to include in one of his solos.
This attention to detail makes the satire so piercing simply because it’s believable that the whole thing is real. The songs, while bad, aren’t appreciably worse than any number of real hits, and the behavior of the group, all pomposity and faux-deepness, is not foreign to anyone who’s watched an interview with untalented fools who have lucked their way into celebrity. When Nigel complains about the food provided back stage (he can’t understand why the bread is smaller than the meat and insists that you can’t fold one without folding the other), our minds go to real stories of assistants who have had to pick red M&Ms out of a jar or something of that nature to please their respective divas. I don’t have any idea how much of the movie is improvised but all of it feels that way, which underlines the authentic feeling and makes the movie stay fresh and positively effortless after repeated viewing.
Of course, it couldn’t have been that easy. Reiner, Guest, McKean and Shearer, who wrote the movie, must have gone to painstaking lengths, not only writing an album’s worth of original songs but making nearly every joke in Spinal Tap either a set-up or a pay–off. What seems like a funny filler line about the band’s female fans (“Really they’re quite fearful—that’s my theory. They see us on stage with tight trousers. We’ve got, you know, armadillos in our trousers. I mean it’s really quite frightening …”) is actually a set-up for two visual gags (Derek is shown with a ridiculous bulge that extends laughably to his knee and Nigel is wearing pants so tight, when he falls to the ground in a flourish of stagemanship, he must be helped back up) and an entire sequence when Derek sets off the airport security scanner because of a zucchini wrapped in tinfoil in his pants. We also learn about a radio transmitter that Nigel has attached to one of his guitars so he can play wirelessly; this is paid off when the band is booked at a military hangar (“Would you play a couple of slow numbers so I can dance?” the square officer asks. They play “Sex Farm”) and Nigel’s transmitter picks up an aircraft signal.
There are too many brilliant sequences to mention. The band has an amp that goes to eleven when the industry standard is ten (“Why don’t you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number?” DiBergi asks. Nigel, taking a brief reprieve from his ubiquitous gum chewing, doesn’t understand. “These go to eleven,” he insists). They try to organize an impromptu and harmonized version of “Heartbreak Hotel” at Elvis’ grave, both honoring the King and reminding us of the less dignified aspects of his legacy. They get lost in the bowels of a venue, having to re-energize themselves with choruses of “Let’s Rock ’n’ Roll!” and “Hello, Cleveland!” after every wrong turn.
My favorite is a discussion of their album reviews in which DiBergi reads their criticism to them. “The review you had on ‘Shark Sandwich,’ which was merely a two word review, just said ‘shit sandwich,’” says DiBergi. Derek is incredulous. “Where’d they print that? You can’t print that.” They don’t disagree with the meaning, only the distribution. This Is Spinal Tap works so well because it acts like it’s on one side of the line between stupid and clever while being firmly and irreproachably on the other.