Anyone who has ever been a member of an 80s glam-rock band, has seen one on stage, or has just watched one of those “Behind the Music” TV spots, will enjoy the brilliance of This Is Spinal Tap. Its characters are exceedingly pathetic; its antics are blatantly preposterous; and for precisely these reasons, Spinal Tap is downright hilarious. In terms of its comedic and cinematic excellence, Tap most certainly sits among the top. Spinal Tap is truly the greatest and most ground-breaking “mockumentary” and one of the funniest films ever brought to fruition.
This is Spinal Tap documents the life of the United Kingdom’s “loudest” band, entitled Spinal Tap. The band consists of David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) on lead vocals, Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) on lead guitar, Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) on bass, Vic Savage (Tony Hendra) on keys, and a variety of drummers who sadly always perish from some unlikely cause.
In the film, documenter Mary DiBergi, played by the film’s director Rob Reiner, attempts to capture both an understanding of Spinal Tap’s change in musical interest over their 17-year life — through behind-the-scenes interviews and footage — and the highlights of their current United States tour.
The band has just unleashed their 15th album, Smell the Glove, and in promoting this musical marvel, the band pumps out such hits as, “Hell Hole,” “Big Bottom,” and “Sex Farm.” However, American audiences don’t seem to be taking a liking to Spinal Tap’s sound, and the band can no longer pack the large arenas like they once could. When David’s girlfriend, Jeanine Pettibone (June Chadwick), arrives on the scene, she takes over as band manager. The group further spirals into shame – accepting gigs at the local Air Force base and playing the opening act for a puppet show.
Throughout its curt 82-minute running time, Tap overflows with opportunities to induce laughter. From Derek Small’s staged metamorphosis pod not opening on cue to the 18-inch model of Stonehenge being lowered from the rafters, followed by the quote, “Our prop was in danger of being crushed by dwarfs,” Spinal Tap ensures that you’ll laugh so hard you’ll not only strain your abdominals, you’ll also witness a near bodily earthquake.
In addition, Spinal Tap is chock full of celebrity cameos. For instance, Ed Begley, Jr. plays the band’s first drummer and Fran Drescher plays Bobbi Flekman, Tap’s public relations person. Billy Crystal and Dana Carvey serve as two mime waiters. Paul Schaffer covers the hilarious role of Artie Fufkin, quoting “Kick my ass,” over and over again. Angelica Houston plays Polly Deutsch, the band’s prop design specialist and Fred Willard makes an appearance as the Lieutenant in charge of the Air Force base’s entertainment.
With all of the pros aside, this must-see recommendation does come with one caveat: in order to fully enjoy all of the laughs that are meant to be had, you must be privy to both the ridiculousness of 80s rock and the ongoing challenge that aging musicians face in trying to keep their rock-star status afloat. With these two aspects in mind, it is nearly impossible for any viewer to leave his/her seat unhappy.
Even though Spinal Tap is centered on a fictitious band, the film truly feels like an authentic documentary every step of the way. (For more of this eccentric and sardonic filming, check out Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show.) By taking a stab at nearly every rock ‘n roll convention, Reiner’s film defies logic and becomes both ridiculously funny and insanely intelligent. With a perfect mix of idiocy and ingenuity, the entire production team amplifies the picture “up to 11.” Spinal Tap is a bona-fide classic, the quintessential “rockumentary,” a film that tackles its own texture, and a justifiable cult phenomenon.
Christopher Guest’s character Nigel says it best when he quotes, “There is a fine line between stupid and clever.” Within the world of Hollywood, a better truth could not be spoken. Fortunately for Spinal Tap, its positives can be found on both sides of the line.