Viking Night: This Is Spinal Tap
By Bruce Hall
August 29, 2012
Getting a good band together isn't nearly as hard as keeping a good band together. Or so the Writer/Director of This Is Spinal Tap would have you believe. For his directorial debut, Rob Reiner teamed with Saturday Night Live alums Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer and made a documentary. Their subject was the fictional British rock band Spinal Tap and their equally fictional 1982 World Tour. The result was This Is Spinal Tap, a brisk, blisteringly funny rock music satire so convincing that to this day, some people see it and think it's real.
The members of "Tap", as fans both real and fictional call them, are frontman David St. Hubbins (McKean), lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Guest), and bassist Derek Smalls (Shearer). The film's best running gag concerns the fact that Tap can't keep a drummer around, as they keep dying off in comical ways. The band's music has a leather-and-chains, post-psychedelic sound reminiscent of Deep Purple - a sound that was dying a slow death, just like Spinal Tap's record sales. A new album and a splashy North American tour are just the shot in the arm the band needs. To mark the occasion, filmmaker and music enthusiast Marty DiBergi tags along, his cameras capturing every heavy metal moment.
The band started with David and Nigel in a working class blues band not at all suggestive of early Rolling Stones. Joined by Smalls and the first of many dead drummers, Spinal Tap became one of the top arena bands of the early ‘70s. Then, seduced by brightly colored tights and cringe-inducing self referential rock operas, they became an irrelevant parody of themselves. The new album is meant to help them reconnect with fans, but a spat with the record company ends up ruining the cover art, beginning a comedy of errors that consumes the tour, the band, and everything around them. From malfunctioning stage props to Nigel's offstage rants about the catering, it's one train wreck after another for Spinal Tap's big comeback tour.
It's only depressing if you're the kind of band that's being made fun of. Otherwise, This Is Spinal Tap is an almost nonstop laugh riot of idiocy, along with an artful, observant wit. The main brains behind Spinal Tap are musicians themselves and while they've created a brilliant spoof, it's made with a great deal of affection. McKean and Guest are obviously trained musicians and the songs they've written for the movie are, honestly, as good as half the stuff that was already on the radio. Spinal Tap is a pretty harmless band; they don't seem to have any trouble with drugs. Their songs are filled with childish, chest thumping puns about male genitalia. We're talking pretty light humor here, but that's not to say there aren't some well placed shots at real things.
David isn't the first singer whose girlfriend ruined the band. Nigel isn't the first guitarist to confuse inches with feet. Derek probably isn't the first bass player to be maimed by a giant space cocoon on stage. And, bad things really do seem to happen to rock drummers. Too much bread? Not enough women? Someone forget about the brown M&Ms? It's all here, albeit in relatively a harmless form. Spinal Tap carries an R rating for language, and I guess there are a couple of mildly lurid gags. But this is a movie whose dry, versatile wit works as well as it does because truth really is stranger than fiction. If any of this is anything you weren’t already hearing on the playground by seventh grade, I'm surprised the cult you live with even lets you use the Internet.
There's a dedicated supporting cast that includes Billy Crystal, Dana Carvey, Anjelica Houston and Fred Willard. And their buy-in is so complete that if you don't already know what you're seeing is a joke, you might never guess. Most of the dialogue is improvised, but it's clearly within a framework. David and Nigel and Derek are idiots, but they're also loveable, and therefore forgivable. Since the drugs, booze and hookers are kept to a minimum, the characters become defined by their most childish quirks. Derek is loyal, but stunningly naive. David acts like a ponce, but finds the role distasteful. And Nigel will always make the right choice, provided he's tried everything else first.
My only criticism of This Is Spinal Tap would be that it's too short. At 82 minutes, most people will more than get their fill of rock gods in bright tights. But this movie is so well paced, the humor is so understated and brilliant, the concert scenes are so utterly convincing and the music is so much fun that you’re really not ready to quit watching when it’s over. Perhaps that’s Rob Reiner’s master stroke - leave them wanting more. The Rolling Stones haven’t mattered for years, Aerosmith is irrelevant, and Van Halen can’t stop losing singers, but the greatness of Spinal Tap lives on. So take my advice and immerse yourself in their abbreviated catalogue. Sit back, close your eyes, and Smell the Glove.