The cultural zeitgeist of mockumentaries (or ‘rockumentaries’, if you will), a film doesn’t simply get credited with that title without some of the greatest jokes ever to be told. I don’t think I need to say anymore.
But I will, because this would a very boring review if I didn’t. This Is Spinal Tap is a documentary by diehard fan Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) about heavy metal band Spinal Tap’s comeback tour over America. One of England’s loudest bands, Tap consists of lead singer David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) and bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer), managed by Ian Faith (Tony Hendra).
It always surprises me that Marty DiBergi is such a diehard fan, because he really can be quite harsh on the band. Reading out those reviews? “Sh*t sandwich”? Was that necessary? But it is true that this is a band that’s hard not to find flaws in with such dim members (“it’s such a fine line between clever and, uh, stupid”), yet the comic results are immeasurable.
All these years later, we seem to have forgotten what satire really means. Annoying and indelicate Saturday Night Live skits have ruined what is so beautifully portrayed in Spinal Tap. While they merely mock pop culture, Tap is able to poke fun at everything – from heavy metal, right down to the very style documentaries are filmed – sometimes with subtlety, sometimes not. What’s truly funny is how right they are: the whining backstage, the ageing and completely talentless musicians, the far too tight leather trousers, the extravagant set designs… every detail is close to perfection.
But while they play up the cliché, every cliché reveals the naked truth. What’s great about Spinal Tap is that while it’s an extended joke about a once mammoth rock band, there’s also a touching story within there too – the relationship between the lead singer and the lead guitarist being strained by the girl in the middle, the Paul McCartney-John Lennon duo, torn by Yoko.
In 1984, this film was pretty revolutionary. Now, mockumentaries have become part of the norm – in fact, some of the most popular sitcoms ever created have followed similar styles to Spinal Tap. Yet they’re not always as brilliantly delivered in such deadpan fashion. I really couldn’t write a review on this film without mentioning some of the genius, still enduring moments that have come to define generations: the 18-inch Stonehenge, the amp that goes to 11, singing at Elvis’ grave (“too much perspective”) the ‘Mach’ song, the completely black album, failing to find the stage, the three piece guitar solo (where he tunes the violin!), the cursed drummers… I could go on. It’s always a good sign when I find myself chuckling just recalling some of the best moments. There’s so many.
But the acting is really what makes this film. Better Call Saul’s Michael McKean, Waiting for Guffman’s Christopher Guest and The Simpsons’ Harry Shearer are all in amazing form. Anything directed by Rob Reiner is going to be good, and on this bold debut of his, you could clearly see where his talent would take him: Stand By Me, When Harry Met Sally and Misery, just to name a few. The cast’s accents were so bang on that people genuinely believed they were English. They’re so committed to their roles that a layman may just think it really was a documentary, and that’s what makes even the slightest jokes so hilarious. If any of them ever broke out of character, if really wouldn’t be the same, but they all seem to take it so seriously.
What’s interesting about this film is that when you first watch it, there aren’t many laugh out loud moments. Yet, it just seems to be a gift that keeps on giving. Give it a day or so to sink in, and the brilliant moments just keep on flooding back to you. Unlike pretty much any film ever made, it gets better with every watch. It’s a treasure trove without a (big) bottom in every sense. You’ll find yourself quoting lines for weeks on end, discovering more gems every time you watch.
Spinal Tap works on so many levels mainly due to your knowledge of the legends and myths in music history, and the film’s context. For some, it may be like watching paint dry. But, others? Cultured, quick witted and interesting geniuses such as your dear writer? Well, we’ll have no trouble with Spinal Tap. It was made for people like you and me, reader.
But the best part of This Is Spinal Tap? They may joke about the pretentious, ignorant and vain rock n’ roll atmosphere, but they respect the songs and love the music too. McKean, Guest and Shearer were all very accomplished musicians, and while the lyrics in themselves are sexist and horribly un-poetic, all the songs are surprisingly catchy, and all original.
This is wit, not clumsy stuff, children. Witness it, and savour it – Spinal Tap is the greatest mockumentary ever created, and let that not be question. I would give the film an eleven, but the stars don’t go that high.
This Is Spinal Tap – 8.5 out of 10