This is Spinal Tap
review by KJ Doughton, 15 September 2000

Since the release of This Is Spinal Tap in 1984, many a band has been asked the question, "What was your most "Spinal Tap" moment?" Hell-bent on getting embarrassing exposes and candid retellings of onstage or in-studio blunders, rock journalists ask this of their instrument-wielding query, knowing that it will act as a humorous ice-breaker before more serious interrogations begin. Why? Because Spinal Tap, the fictional band starring in Rob Reinerís classic, comic "rockumentary", was one big botch job. The foursome got lost backstage before a big gig in Cleveland, were billed second to a theme-park puppet show, and attended a dismal autograph session where no one else showed up.

They were pretentious buffoons demonstrating all of rock musicís most overblown and embarrassing traits, with songs like "Sex Farm", "Big Bottom", and "Break Like the Wind." But there was something more behind these pathetic losers than empty arenas and juvenile lyrics. They were gloriously human losers, both shallow and complex. When Nigel Tufnel, their sensationally dense guitarist, explains that the bandís secret is a collection of amplifiers that transcends the typical one-to-ten volume level and "goes to eleven", heís asked for a more satisfying explanation. "Why not just make them go to ten," asks a fan, "and make ten louder?" Tufnel ponders this, a stumped expression slathered across his face like that of a deer caught in someoneís headlights. "UhÖthese go to eleven", he responds. Meanwhile, we laugh not only at his utter lack of insight, but also smile in grudging admiration. Nigel might be dumb, but heís also kinda cute, like Rain Man in spandex.

For the uninitiated, it should be understood that there never really was a Spinal Tap. Although the movie, with its hand-held camerawork and seemingly caught-on-the-spot situations, is utterly convincing as a candid documentary, its subjects are an entirely fictitious bunch. As This Is Spinal Tap opens, director Reiner pops onto the screen as imaginary documentary filmmaker Martin DiBergi, cheerfully explaining why he sought out to make a movie devoted to "Englandís loudest band." He explains that as a longtime "Tap" fan, he was knocked out by the bandís flashy exuberance, energy, "Ö and their punctuality."

Then the movie widens its canvas of characters, introducing insecure, absent-minded guitarist Nigel Tufnel (a brilliant Christopher Guest), pompous singer David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), soft-spoken bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer), keyboardist Viv Savage (David Kaff), and drummer Mick Shrimpton (R.J. Parnell). The latter is the latest in a long line of skin-slammers: through the bandís long history, Tap drummers have died of spontaneous combustion while performing onstage. "A little green globula was all that was left of the last guy," announces Tufnel, ominously.

Viewers of This Is Spinal Tap soon learn that the band is an old heavy metal dinosaur, along the lines of Uriah Heep or Led Zeppelin. In fact, fans of the latter band will notice that certain concert scenes, where the camera stares up at performerís crotches like some lusty groupie standing in the front row, are done in the style of Zeppelinís 1976 documentary, The Song Remains the Same. Zeppelinís charismatic guitarist, Jimmy Page, often tortured his guitars with eerie, theremin-derived audio effects, and owned the house of alleged black magic sorcerer Aleister Crowley. Meanwhile, Spinal Tap boast a Stonehenge monument and emerge from mysterious, primordial pods onstage. However, such attempts by the latter band to dance with the dark side arenít nearly as successful: the Stonehenge rock statue ends up being recreated by a prop designer in inches, not feet, losing much of its massive presence, and the pods are defective. In a hilarious scene, bassist Smalls finds himself trapped in the encasement during mid-performance, before a stagehand springs him free by wedging it open via flame-thrower and sledgehammer.

Following the band on a "comeback" tour of the U.S., viewers share in Spinal Tapís misery as one thing after another goes wrong. The bandís record company bans the cover of their upcoming LP, which features a naked woman in a degrading pose. When told that the cover is offensive and sexist, Nigel is flummoxed. "Whatís wrong with being sexy?" he retorts. "Sex-ist," clarifies his manager, Ian Faith (Tony Hendra). Later, the long-suffering manager calms Nigel when the backstage catering snacks are not to his liking. "I want large bread," the musician whines, struggling to combine miniature bread with standard-diameter baloney slices into a sandwich. "Please donít let this affect your performance," pleads Ian, acting as this prima donnaís psychologist or nursemaid whenever the need arises.

Reinerís attempts to make This Is Spinal Tap as realistic as possible include showing earlier band lineups that reflect the groupís seventeen year history: like a persistent wasp hovering over a picnic site, Spinal Tap have refused to go away. A sixties television appearance, for instance, features Nigel and David in mop-top manes and Austin Powers-style wardrobes, with go-go dancers jiggling behind them like something from Laugh-In. Meanwhile Reiner nails the style of grainy, unpolished interview footage so common to low-budget documentaries. The movie looks so real, you can almost buy the notion of an exploding drummer.

As the movie passes its halfway mark, however, it becomes more than just a laugh-fest. So well drawn out are the characters in This Is Spinal Tap, that we actually begin caring about this mascara-laden motley crew. When Davidís control-freak girlfriend comes on the road with the band and tries to take over, the tension is convincing. Meanwhile, when Nigel becomes fed up with their nightmare tour and quits the band, itís like watching old friends break up. Sure, theyíre a bunch of screw-ups, but theyíre trying. When David and Nigel hurl profanities at one another during a common argument, the ever patient Smalls tries to act as mediator. "Those two are brilliant," he says of his bandmates. "Theyíre like fire and ice. My position in the band is somewhere in the middle, like lukewarm water." And even as we laugh at this pathetic putz, we also empathize. Spinal Tap might be a goofy rock band, but theyíre also a parallel to real life, with the messy relationships, misunderstandings, and social politics that go along with the nine to five routine. Thereís plenty that viewers can relate to.

Musicians that watch This Is Spinal Tap can certainly relate. Released with minimal fanfare, it soon became the definitive rock Ďn roll comedy, partially because it struck such a truthful chord. Instead of flinching from such an unflattering portrayal of life in a rock band, musicians embraced the film. Aerosmithís Steven Tyler went as far as to say that the movie was too accurate, and painful to watch. Heís right. The sexual double-entendres that lace "Sex Farm" and "Bitch School" arenít that far removed from anything off of an Aerosmith, Motley Crue, or AC/DC record. Meanwhile, a scene in which the band are stuck with a pitch black album cover after their record company rejects an original design has a startling real life counterpart. Both AC/DCís "Back in Black" and Metallicaís self-titled fifth album sport jet-black album covers. Another case of art imitating life?

Perhaps the reason for the filmís acceptance in rock Ďn roll "insider" circles is its ultimately affectionate vibe. Reiner obviously loves his leather-jacketed bunch, even as they walk into one land mine after another. Heavy rock music might be overbloated and silly at times, but is that such a bad thing? Maybe thatís the point that rock critics miss: metal might not always be great social commentary, but itís always fun Ė just like watching This Is Spinal Tap, currently in re-release with digital sound for new millenium head-banging.

Directed by:
Rob Reiner

Christopher Guest
Michael McKean
Harry Shearer
Rob Reiner
June Chadwick
Tony Hendra
Bruno Kirby

Written by:
Christopher Guest
Michael McKean
Rob Reiner
Harry Shearer




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