|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
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