Director – Rob Reiner
Writers – Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Rob Reiner
Country – USA
Year – 1984
Certificate – 15
Cast – Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, Tony HendraThey were Britain’s loudest band. They were responsible for some of the greatest rock songs of a generation including Swallow My Love, Stonehenge and Sex Farm. They were The Originals. They were The New Originals. They are Spinal Tap.
This is Spinal Tap is the original ‘Rockumentary’ from the mind of American comedy genius, Christopher Guest (Best In Show, A Mighty Wind). Set up as a documentary shot by die-hard Tap fan Marty DiBergi (Reiner), This is Spinal Tap documents the members of the band as they enter into their American tour. DiBergi’s footage captures the enigma that is the inner workings of three men ruled by rock and roll, hungry for the spotlight, but ultimately just three blokes that got lucky.
Though the spoof movie emerged a few years earlier with films like Airplane! (1980), This is Spinal Tap set itself apart from these slapstick style comedies by making a bold decision – to convince the audience it was real. Whereas Lesley Neilson in Airplane! had been a larger-than-life character in an extraordinary situation, the characters in Reiner’s film appear so authentic that 1980s audience members genuinely believed the film was a serious documentary about a famous British rock band. Named after the patron Saint of quality footwear, David St. Hubbins (McKean), is the blonde, dashing face of the band. His best friend Nigel Tufnel (Guest) is the dim but loveable guitarist and Derek Smalls (Shearer) is quietly the brains behind the operation. Watching the three actors on screen is mesmerising as they snap one-liners and take the dialogue to places you could never imagine.
The screenplay for the film is almost irrelevant as most of what you see on screen is improvisation, especially in the scenes where DiBergi is interviewing the band members about their hilariously named previous albums and their predominantly negative critic reviews. The improvisation between the three characters is so natural and engaging, that it is easy to forget the stories they tell have never happened, no matter how unlikely the experience.
Aside from the three band members, there is also keyboardist Viv Savage (David Kaff) and manager Ian Faith (Tony Hendra). Faith is the typical useless manager who is incomprehensible to his band and incapable of keeping them happy. Faith is continuously red-faced, and though he believes he is as special as the stars he looks after, it is clear that they are all as egotistical as each other.
One of the most celebrated jokes of the film is the band’s relationship with their many drummers. Each one has died under mysterious circumstances, whether it be a bizarre gardening accident or the authorities declaring they “choked on vomit”. Such an outrageous joke played utterly straight faced managed to keep many audience members under the spell that it was all reality.
The real beauty to This is Spinal Tap is in the details. The film demands you watch it again and again, and each time you will laugh at something you hadn’t noticed before. Even some of the lesser characters are just too perfect to forget. For example, Artie Fufkin (Paul Shaffer) is a painfully cutting portrayal of a music promoter whose voice grates and enthusiasm burns. His utter hopelessness is unbearable and his desperation to be liked by the band is sickening. The film’s portrayal of the executives of the music business is humiliating from the opening scenes at the band’s launch party where they are surrounded by fake smiles and empty compliments, up to the band’s limo driver, Tommy (Bruno Kirby) being brainwashed by assorted media and devoting himself to Frank Sinatra.
The film’s scolding satire of the music industry is unmatched by any other spoof-style film because This is Spinal Tap addresses it completely head on and isn’t afraid to show everyone in a bad light. It throws its light over the fans who worship imbeciles, the imbeciles themselves, the people that work for them and the people that fund their extravagance. This is explored even further through the many songs in the film, with lyrics like these from the song Sexfarm:-
Working on a sex farm
Trying to raise some hard love
Getting out my pitch fork
And poking your hay
Scratching in your henhouse
Sniffing at your feedbag
Slipping out your back door
I’m leaving my spray
Sex farm woman
I’m gonna mow you down
Sex farm woman
I’ll rake and mow you down
Sex farm woman
Don’t you see my silo risin’ high?
The music is just as important as the dialogue, as Guest, McKean and Shearer have crafted incredible rock ballads that exist on their own merit outside the walls of the film, the lyrics to which are hysterically funny as well as ruthless. The songs are built on the foundations of every rock classic and focus solely on sex, drugs and rock n roll, with the lyrics being as empty and shallow their portrayal of the industry.
Like many cult favourites, This is Spinal Tap wasn’t understood by box office audiences, and didn’t make much money on its original release. However, thanks to the power of VHS, it has become a pillar of the comedy genre and has set the benchmark for deadpan, satirical, musical comedy. Though deadpan, spoof comedy is now common in film and television, it is still fair to say that no one has done it better.
If you have already seen the film or I have persuaded you it to watch it, follow it by watching the DVD with commentary from the three main actors for even more adlib comedy. Finally, I recommend you watch Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008), which is in fact a true story involving another man named Rob Reiner. Though a great deal of Anvil is modelled on This is Spinal Tap, it is an incredible experience to see the men who still grasp at the same dream of rock and roll as Guest’s creations. Watching Anvil struggle to be noticed as the rock stars they clearly are cements questions that This is Spinal Tap poses about the music industry and proves music is more than empty lyrics and expensive guitars, but it’s not about the work you put in – it’s about the money you bring in.