This is Spinal Tap (1984)

11 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It would just be one thing to make a documentary about a rock band with a few issues. It’s quite another to make a mock-documentary about a fictional rock band with more than a few issues.

“This is Spinal Tap” is a mock-“rockumentary” about a British band called Spinal Tap who, according to an introduction, has been pretty famous back in the day because they’re the loudest band on earth. But now back on tour for their newest album, they are just loud. How are they the loudest band on earth? Well, when most bands crank their amps’ volumes up to 10, they take it up to 11.

Spinal Tap guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) explains the amp to filmmaker Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner, the film’s director). “Most amps go to 10?” “Exactly.” “Does that mean it’s louder?” “Well, it’s one louder, right?”

“Why don’t you just make 10 louder, and make 10 be the top number, and make that a little louder?”

Baffled by that notion, Nigel just replies by restating, “These go to 11.”

Nigel’s ideas aren’t logical and DiBergi realizes that a little too late. Nigel obviously lives in a world of his own.

“This is Spinal Tap” is one of the funniest, original, and most intelligent movies ever made. Spinal Tap does not exist, although the actors playing the band wrote and performed their own songs for the fictional band. But it could. While on tour in America, their career is heading downhill. Back in the day, the arenas were packed. But now, not many people care. Some may have forgotten about them. But who’s to blame for the reason that Spinal Tap is a bad rock-n-roll band?

Director DiBergi narrates throughout the documentary. He likes Spinal Tap’s music and follows the group on tour, asking them questions about themselves. I was chuckling when they explained what happened to their old drummer (“He choked on vomit…but it wasn’t his own vomit.”). But I was laughing when I found out that that drummer wasn’t the only Spinal Tap drummer who died. Apparently, they have a new and clever way of killing off all of their drummers. Maybe the other guys don’t kill him—maybe it’s a “drummer curse” that occurs when a new drummer is brought to the band, which means that the current drummer in this movie is not going to last very long.

Bad luck happens with the band when rhythm guitarist/lead singer David’s (Michael McKean) girlfriend Jeanine (June Chadwick) arrives to join the tour. Gigs are cancelled, the lady and the band’s manager Ian (Tony Hendra) have an argument which results in him quitting, the cover for the new album stinks, and a gig at a military base is a disaster with all of the planes roaring off outside. The events that occur in this movie—even the quiet moments, such as when the group visits Elvis’ tombstone—are funny and original; even more funny is that they’re all played naturally.

Other funny scenes—the band gets lost on a gig on their way to the stage (not to the place but to the stage); bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) is trapped in a womblike stage prop but keeps his cool while the others perform and a stage crew member tries to get him out; a set designer is assigned to create an 18-foot replica of a Stonehenge element but instead creates an 18-inch replica that the band is forced bring out dramatically…and embarrassingly.

That last scene mentioned is very funny because the band members don’t know what the thing will look like and when they see it finally, on stage, their surprised reactions are hilarious.

“This is Spinal Tap” is a great, funny movie not just because of the really funny scenes but because Spinal Tap aren’t mean-spirited, and the way that they are going about this film is not cruel. The appeal of this movie is how it shares the pleasure of just being themselves. They love to rock, they love to entertain—they probably go out there every performance just to hear and feel the beat.

American comic actors Christopher Guest and Michael McKean give respectable British accents and heartfelt performances. Guest, McKean, Shearer, and Reiner co-wrote the script themselves—they went through improvisational stages and wrote the Spinal Tap songs (most memorable are “Sex Farm” and “Hellhole”). “This is Spinal Tap” is also Rob Reiner’s directorial debut. I love the way he puts background information and glimpses of style into almost each frame of the film.

You could call “This is Spinal Tap” a spoof. But the laughs aren’t coming from sight gags such as “Airplane!” or “Top Secret.” But it’s more of a satire in the way that this movie feels like a real documentary with the dumb questions and the ridiculously funny answers. This is a really rare, specific type of satirical comedy to do. It’s a brilliant satire on documentaries, stage decorations, rock music, and troubles with rock bands. “This is Spinal Tap” rocks!

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