WFTB Score: 20/20
The plot: English Heavy Rock band Spinal Tap embark on a tour of the USA to promote their new album, Smell the Glove. However, confusion and events conspire against them, arrivals and departures from the entourage cause friction between band members, and the future of the band itself is put in danger as the tour lurches from disaster to catastrophe.
Generally speaking, reviewing films with your eyes shut is not a good idea: it suggests you’re not taking the medium seriously. But when you’ve seen a film as many times as I’ve seen This is Spinal Tap, it’s a doddle. Spinal Tap is credited with being the first mockumentary, though as Marti DiBergi (Rob Reiner, on- and off-screen director) points out, it is in fact a “Rockumentary,” and dozens of films since owe tribute to it for that reason alone. However, the term is misleading as there is nothing mocking in the film, other than the gentlest kind which comes from the actors’ obvious affection for the excesses of rock music.
Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer put in pitch-perfect performances as guitarist Nigel Tufnel, vocalist David St Hubbins and bassist Derek Smalls respectively; in fact, they are so convincing in their roles that I was genuinely surprised to discover that they were all American (though Guest has British heritage). The supporting cast also do a terrific job, most notably Tony Hendra as Tap’s long-suffering manager, Fran Drescher as nasal publicist Bobbi Fleckman and June Chadwick as David’s interfering girlfriend Jeanine.
The film follows the downhill spiral of the band, from the headlining start of their (farewell?) US tour to a humiliating afternoon performance where they are treated only slightly better than the puppet show. Although the outline of each scene has been planned, the dialogue is improvised, lively and full of entirely spontaneous reactions, creating lines that could never have arisen from scripted material. As the DVD extra material shows, the process can be hit-and-miss, but the feature film – running at a lean 83 minutes – never puts a foot wrong. The combined and cumulative vanity and stupidity of the group results in a film that is endlessly quotable.
Everything else is right on the money, especially the music. From Tap’s early rock’n’roll days, through a psychedelic phase, and up to modern chauvinist metal like ‘Big Bottoms’ and ‘Sex Farm,’ the songs are entertaining replicas of the real thing, performed with conviction when it would be easy to slip into parody. Whilst the lyrics, musical arrangements (the three basses in ’Big Bottoms’ are a treat) and staging are daft, they are not far off the mark compared to real events. Indeed, ‘Stonehenge’ is based on a real song by Black Sabbath. The complex prog-rock song and accompanying prop is designed as the perfect number to re-invigorate the group, and forms the pivotal point of the film; needless to say, things do not turn out quite as planned.
There is no greater credit you can give to Spinal Tap – the film and its stars – than the confusion that has reigned about the group since its release. Many at the time took the film as a genuine documentary, and at a live Tap gig Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher (according to his brother) was dismayed to find out that homely group The Folksmen (see A Mighty Wind for details) were in fact the same people as the loud rock band he was waiting to see.
One more word on the DVD: the three leads give the commentary and, rather than recounting anecdotes and technical difficulties whilst filming, talk in character. Nigel, David and Derek reminisce bitterly about the misrepresentation of the band in the film and are consistently funny doing so. The quality of the other extras is mixed, but the commentary alone makes the film good for another couple of dozen viewings. Whether you choose to watch with your eyes open is up to you, but if you like comedy this is a film you must, must see.