- Movie Rating -

This is Spinal Tap (1984)

| March 2, 1984

Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap is one of the funniest films ever made, a fake documentary that examines the downward spiral of a heavy metal band whose best days have long passed.  The film plays like any number of pompous rock documentaries of the eighties, with all the preparations, problems, headaches, half-baked philosophies and petty feuds that come along with musicians that try to convince themselves that they are in the business for anything other then parties, booze and groupies.

Reiner himself plays a documentarian named Marty DiBergi who follows Spinal Tap on their 1982 U.S. tour.  We meet the guys in the the band: David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), the spaghetti-haired lead singer who assures us that there really was a Saint Hubbins (the patron saint of quality footwear).  Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), the lead guitarist who wears his heart on his sleeve and is passionately in love with his musical equipment (He is also in love with David and his heart breaks with the news that David’s girlfriend Jeannine is joining the tour).  And there is Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer), the base guitarist whose most famous formidable endowment is revealed to be a lie during a trip through an airport metal detector.

We also meet Ian Faith, their long-suffering manager who carries a cricket bat which he explains is sort-of a talisman. “Certainly, in the topsy-turvy world of heavy rock”, he explains, “having a good solid piece of wood in your hand is often useful.” Then there’s a is montage in which that sort-of talisman smashes TV’s, desks, etc.  As we track the career of the band, we also learn that the band has been through at least 30 different members over the years including a rotating series of ill-fated drummers who all seem to meet a horrifying end.  We get a brief interview with their current drummer Mick Shrimpton who sits in a bath wearing the countenance of a man who knows that he is living on borrowed time.

We track the success and downward spiral of the band during the tour and through a brief journey of their career.  The guys in Spinal Tap don’t have any real creative talents of their own, they just seem to ride the coat-tails of what is popular at the moment.  Early on, they were an R&B group, then they modeled themselves after The Beatles, then into the flower power era and eventually into a hair band.  They are so caught up in their passion for being onstage with millions of screaming fans that they don’t recognize (or don’t want to) that they are playing smaller and smaller venues.  They’ve gone from 10,000 screaming fans to 1,200 and it gets worse as they go from playing a theme park to playing a dance in an airplane hanger.

There is a lot to be blamed for this crash and burn, but their music certainly doesn’t help.  Their songs seem made up of overheated pornographic numbers like “Big Bottom”, an apparent ode to anal sex that actually contains the words “flesh tuxedo”.  Later there’s “sex farm”, a gleefully demoralizing piece that equates farm equipment to their reproductive organs with lines like “My silo is risin’ high!”  I was amazed at how exaggerated their songs seemed until it dawned on me that they really aren’t any different from those produced by real bands.

The band’s latest album, “Smell the Glove”, becomes the source of a controversy when stores refuse to carry the album because the cover features a woman in chains being forced to follow the suggestion of the album’s title (“you should have seen what they wanted to use!”, Ian explains).  Later we learn that a fellow musician has a similar cover but no one objected because it was the man in place of a woman.

Some of the funniest moments in the film take place during onstage disasters like a moment when Nigel gets into his solo and falls to his knees but then needs help from the roadies to get back up.  Then there’s a mishap involving a strange embryonic chambers from which the members of the band are suppose to emerge during a performance, except that one doesn’t go quite as planned. Derek’s pod doesn’t open and, all through the number, workmen bang on the pod with a hammer in an attempt to get him out. When he is finally released, the number is over and his fellow bandmates step back into their pods.

My personal favorite is a brilliant moment when they are playing a tiny venue and they leave their dressing rooms but get lost on the way to the stage.  They stop and ask a handyman for directions but his directions lead them in a circle right back to where they started.

Certainly one of the most famous moments takes place when the band gets the idea to have a Druid theme as part of their show which includes a large prop in the shape of one of the monuments of stonehenge.  Nigel draws a scale of the prop, but a misunderstanding leaves them with a prop that is 18 inches, not feet (we see a brief shot of Jeannine smirking off the side – does she know he’s made a mistake?).  The mistake is revealed just before the concert between the designer and Ian so that we know what is going to happen and when it descends to the stage with dwarfs in pointed shoes dancing around it, the guys look on in slack-jawed horror.

The script was written by Reiner, McKean, Guest and Shearer but most of their dialogue was improv.  There’s a perfectly timed moment during a discussion between Marty and Nigel over his audio equipment in which the chattering guitarist brags about his specially-made amps that go up to 11.  “That’s like one louder, isn’t it?” he says almost with a smile.  But Marty can’t help asking “Why don’t you just make 10 louder?”.  Nigel is frozen for an answer and finally concludes “These go up to 11”.  Nigel is a man who has a theory but hasn’t quite worked his way down to logic.

This is Spinal Tap would not work if we didn’t care about these guys.  They are perpetual adolescents who blissfully refuse to believe that they holding on to a career that has long-since past them by.  There is sort of a comic-tragedy when we see them playing a theme park arena to an audience of about 20 people but if we weren’t so caught up in their giddiness at the idea of being rock stars, if we didn’t feel for them as they try to hold on to the last vestiges of their image, none of the material would work.  At the end, as the band stands in splinters, they get the information that they’ve been offered a chance to tour Japan. Not the perfect career move, but the guys in Tap are just happy for one more chance to hold on to the dream.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1984) View IMDB Filed in: Comedy