Like some cultural behemoth throwing a shadow across the film landscape, 1984’s This is Spinal Tap, that landmark mockumentary, is one of those films imprinted in shared cultural memory and legend because parents deemed it good enough to let their kids watch it even though the kids were too young to fully appreciate it but at least get half the gags.
That was one long and confused sentence but sums up my experience. Finally viewing it on the big screen as an adult, I was able to recognise and appreciate the writing, the satire and the cinematic language used to make the comedy and the music.
The British heavy metal band Spinal Tap, lead singer David St. Hubbin (Michael McKean), lead guitarist, Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), bass guitarist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer perpetually hidden behind a moustache) are being filmed by Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) for a documentary about their concert tour around the United States to promote their newest album, Smell the Glove. All is not well as low ticket sales, controversy over the sexist album cover and creative interference from the lead-singer’s girlfriend builds. Is there any salvation for the group?
Probably one of the best remembered films of the 1980’s, it pokes fun at heavy metal’s overblown operators whilst acting like a time-capsule for music, fashion and big stars at the time (Fran Drescher!!!! Billy Crystal!!!!).
This is Spinal Tap the mockumentary hoodwinks the audience by blending brilliant comedic acting and a sharp script with the language of documentary film-making which captures real subjects and situations using film techniques such as interviews, clips and reconstruction. It successfully replicates the feel of rock documentaries.
The fictional band’s history is detailed and believable as we trace their journey from childhood friends David and Nigel and their skiffle band through various musical trends. The film sprinkles photographs, interviews and clips whilst the disasters of the tour to ‘Tap into America’ is performed and captured with a straight face, making the whole thing a believable document of the slow-motion implosion of a band.
It worked so well that walking blearily out of the screening room and into the sunlight an attendant said, “Well that was a strange film.”
The characters are treated good-humouredly – musically talented adolescent schoolboy idiots. Their music is sonically entertaining but the content utter drivel which makes the songs hilarious.
We get full visual and audio comedic assault from over the top stage-performances delivered by musical druids channelling lyrics from that twisted dimension of teenage boys who have discovered chasing girls but have yet to transcend to the next level of pretension, French existentialism.
And that’s the type of humour on offer, nothing vicious, disgusting or down-beat. Just double entendre’s and crude metaphors inhabiting a wider, smarter film that uses the nature of the documentary to take ridiculous band, nay, genre, and its pretensions seriously just waiting for a faux pas to deflate the sheer pomposity and spectacle.
And what comedic spectacles. Speakers that go up to 11, the Stonehenge set having the wrong measurements, the band getting lost back-stage on their way to perform. My favourite? Tufnel, the talent, plays a sensitive classical piece on piano inspired by Mozart and Bach – more of a Mach piece – a song in d-minor, always a sad key. It impresses Marti who asks what the title is leading Tufnel to tell him, Lick My Love Pump.
Seriously, just watch the film.