Movies We Like
This is Spinal Tap
Although it has had a lot of competition since it was released in 1984, This is Spinal Tap still remains the greatest mockumentary, the best spoof on the rock music scene, and one of the funniest, most continually quotable flicks I’ve ever seen. This was the first film directed by Rob Reiner who, at the time, was primarily known for his role as Meathead on the legendary sitcom All in the Family. He would go on to have a mostly pedestrian directing career with a few stand-outs (Stand By Me). With This Is Spinal Tap, Reiner and his three costars - Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer (all four of whom are the credited writers) - created something very special whose style has been copied many times over, especially by Guest himself. But nothing has hit it so far out of the park as this one did.
The mockumentary (a spoof of a documentary) was not new at the time. Though rather dull, David Holzman’s Diary was considered a landmark in 1967. Woody Allen made the now classic Take the Money and Run. There was that Beatles spoof, All You Need is Cash, and Albert Brooks foresaw the coming of reality TV with his Real Life. What makes This is Spinal Tap especially impressive is that it keeps the documentary format the entire film, something most other mockumentaries rarely sustain (including Guest’s later work). Most of the other films often cheat and have moments to try and help the plot along that couldn’t have been documented by a pesky camera crew. Every moment in This is Spinal Tap keeps the documentary format humming. By 1984 the ego-driven rockumentary had been a standard cash generator for most megabands (peaking in the seventies before the music video came to dominate the self-promotion machine). Going at least as far back as Bob Dylan’s Don’t Look Back in ’67 and the music festival docs Monterey Pop and Woodstock, it was really The Rolling Stones’ Cocksucker Blues and Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains The Same that gave This is Spinal Tap its most potent fodder.
For the first time in six years Spinal Tap, “England’s loudest band”, is embarking on a tour of the States to promote their new album, Smell The Glove. Commercial director Marty DiBergi (Reiner) proudly boosts that he did the chuck-wagon ad and is going to document the tour. Like McCartney and Lennon, David St. Hubbins (McKean) and Nigel Tufnel (Guest) started playing together as youngsters in England, forming a short-lived band. Later they were joined by Derek Smalls (Shearer, who doesn’t seem as committed to his English accent as McKean and Guest are) on bass and keyboardist Viv Savage (David Kaff), though they keep losing drummers to bizarre accidents. The band is led by their ineffective road manager, Ian Faith (Tony Hendra, whose long comedy career includes work for both National Lampoon and Spy Magazine). When a Boston gig is cancelled, he assures the band with “don’t worry Boston’s not much of a college town.” The fans and the record company seemed to have soured on Spinal Tap. Every humiliation that could go wrong for the band does, ranging from getting lost backstage before a show to having their new album’s misogynistic artwork blackened out. Like many great bands splitting apart at the seams, the tension really cranks up when St. Hubbins' abrasive girlfriend, Jeanine (June Chadwick), shows up and eventually takes over managing the band, leading to Tufnel’s departure.
Guest, McKean and Shearer had developed much goodwill from their peers after years in the comedy trenches. McKean might have been the most established in the mainstream thanks to his role as Lenny on television’s Laverne & Shirley, though he and Shearer had worked together much earlier in the comedy group The Generation Gap. Guest, who had a full on musical background, earned his comedy chops with National Lampoon's stage show "Lemmings" (along with John Belushi, directed by Hendra), and he had actually been developing his Tufnel character for years in sketches. Shearer, who may be just as known now for all the voices he does on The Simpsons, was a child actor in Hollywood as far back as the fifties. Later he cowrote Real Life with Brooks and then cowrote a TV pilot with Reiner, which starred Guest and McKean. The perfect team was formed and Spinal Tap is created. Many of those other friends and assorted faces showed up for This is Spinal Tap in cameos and supporting parts, including Bruno Kirby, Anjelica Huston, Howard Hesseman, Billy Crystal, Patrick Macnee, Paul Shaffer, Fran Drescher and best of all, Fred Willard, as their military escort when Spinal Tap is reduced to playing a dance at a lame Air Force Base.
Some of the film's best scenes are clips of Spinal Tap’s earlier moments in their career. There is a scene from the early sixties when they were known as The Thamesmen singing their song “Gimmie Some Money” and later in their “summer of love” period singing "Listen to the Flower People" in full-on groovy psychedelic mode. The sheer amount of songs written by these guys, in character and representing Spinal Tap’s different eras, is astounding. Performing the songs themselves, with names like “Sex Farm,” “Hell Hole,” "Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight," “Stonehenge” and most memorably “Big Bottom,” each song is as intricately done as the perfectly ad-libbed script.
On its initial release, the relatively low-budget This is Spinal Tap was not considered a hit, but with the then new inventions of cable and home videos, it found its audience and gained a cult following. Over the years the guys regrouped for albums, tours and TV appearances. Strangely, the fictitious band was now out trying to earn a buck the same way other real bands were. Though their DVD commentary for the movie as Spinal Tap is very amusing, nothing they did was able to reach the comic highs of the original film.
I’ve probably seen This is Spinal Tap at least ten times since it first came out. Like any comic masterpiece, I can be struck by a joke I missed on previous viewings. This last go around, I laughed aloud at one of the final jokes, a quickie... On their Japanese tour, after another drummer dies, they have a new drummer. The subtitle says Joe “Big Mamma” Besser, of course referencing Joe Besser, the name of the actor who joined Larry Fine and Moe Howard in the Three Stooges after Curley and then Shemp died. Brilliant.