“The musical growth of this band cannot even be charted. They are treading water in a sea of retarded sexuality and bad poetry.”
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That’s what one poison-penned critic wrote about the long-haired hard rock group Spinal Tap.
I, on the other hand, lay down my pen, flick my Bic lighter, raise it high and say, “All hail the Tap!” Or, at least, the rockumentary. Or, more accurately, the mock rockumentary.
This is Spinal Tap, the 1984 tribute to those blow-dried spandexed British rockers, springs from the fertile imaginations of Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer. This was Reiner’s first time behind the camera as director and if there was ever a way to completely shake the Meathead persona of All in the Family, this was it. Reiner showed he had the brains and talent for big-screen entertainment. There’s plenty of smart meat in that head. With the exception of the abysmal North, he’s gone on to direct some of my most cherished motion pictures (The Princess Bride and Misery among them).
If you’re a Spinal Tap virgin, there’s one thing you should know: the group never really existed. Be advised, there was never a real Blair Witch, either.
That’s the first step to truly enjoying the on-again, off-again satire of the movie. This is, essentially, a cross-eyed look at the world of Big 80s anthem rock—the kind of music produced by lion-maned rockers like Poison, Whitesnake and Scorpions (hmm, I detect a venom theme here).
Loud guitars, dry ice fog, the huge skull stage prop, the sweaty hair, the strung-out days in hotel rooms with groupies, the befuddled manager—This is Spinal Tap gets it all down on film with tongue firmly wiggling in cheek (and sometimes coming out to wag at the camera with bad-boy rocker insouciance).
Reiner appears as Marty DiBergi, a documentary filmmaker who follows the heavy-metal rockers around on their American tour. Nigel Tufnel (Guest), David St. Hubbins (McKean) and Derek Smalls (Shearer) are the front men for the group which is quickly sliding off the bottom of the charts. As the film progresses, their gigs get smaller and smaller. When they end up playing for an “At Ease” dance on an air force base, they know they’ve hit the rock bottom of rock. Not to mention the fact that the cover art for their latest album, Smell the Glove, has been rejected in favor of a Beatlesque “black album” (Nigel: “It's like, how much more black could this be? and the answer is none. None more black.”)
Through it all, DiBergi follows with his camera, interviewing the band members, shooting concert footage and capturing their most daft, red-faced moments (the peak of the film comes when they’re all pumped up to go out on stage and wind up lost in the basement of the concert hall getting directions from the janitor). There’s never a serious moment in This is Spinal Tap, though everyone plays it straight with nary a twitch or wink.
And that’s the second thing you need to know about the movie: it succeeds due to the sincerity of the spoof. Guest has gone on to make two other mockumentaries, 1996’s Waiting for Guffman and this year’s Best in Show. The cutting view of our self-important culture has never been sharper. In This is Spinal Tap, the long-haired lads are so earnest, so pompous, so clueless that I’m surprised some real-life rockers haven’t sued for defamation of character. The dialogue, most of it improvised by the actors, skewers the industry from all sides.
The nice thing about This is Spinal Tap is that everyone will have their favorite moments, those quotes which boomerang back to them days, weeks, years after watching the movie. Here are just two moments that make me collapse:
Marty: David St. Hubbins... I must admit I've never heard anybody with that name.
David: It's an unusual name, well, he was an unusual saint, he's not a very well known saint.
Marty: Oh, there actually is, uh... there was a Saint Hubbins?
David: That's right, yes.
Marty: What was he the saint of?
David: He was the patron saint of quality footwear.
[Marty interviews Nigel as he’s playing around on the piano]
Marty: It's very pretty.
Nigel: You know, just simple lines intertwining, you know, very much like—I'm really influenced by Mozart and Bach, and it's sort of in between those, really. It's like a Mach piece, really. It's sort of—
Marty: What do you call this?
Nigel: Well, this piece is called "Lick My Love Pump."
The final step in Spinal Tap appreciation is realizing that the mockumentary is not always side-splittingly funny. There are plenty of dull spots where the tongues fall out of the cheeks and the humor goes flat as the keyboard player’s singing. Some viewers might even find the improvisational style a bit, shall we say, dull.
But This is Spinal Tap is the kind of movie that gets funnier the longer you think about it. I watched the DVD last evening just before going to bed and in the middle of the night, I woke up thinking about all those ill-fated drummers (a running gag is that they’re always dying under mysterious circumstances—gardening accident, spontaneous combustion, etc.). When I mentally replayed that bit about “Stumpy Joe” Childs choking on vomit—“Not his own; it was actually someone else’s vomit”—I had to get out of bed so I wouldn’t wake my wife with my giggling.
Just like the tone from Nigel’s favorite guitar, this is the kind of comedy that “sustains.”
If you are a fan of the Tap, you must—you simply MUST—own the DVD version. It’s packed with more extras than Derek Small’s cucumber-enhanced trousers.
The best feature is the audio commentary by Nigel, David and Derek. Notice I said the characters’—not the actors’—names. More than 25 years after the release of DiBergi’s documentary, the Tap lads have a chance to comment on “DiBergowitz’ exploitation” of them. Here again, Guest, McKean and Shearer let loose with free-flowing improv, Mystery Science Theater-style, and the results are often funnier than the movie itself. They offer up a whole new set of quotable gems throughout the whole commentary.
Another perk of the DVD is nearly an hour of outtakes—essentially all the footage that Reiner left on the cutting room floor. It also devotes more screen time to the party scene where we see early performances by Dana Carvey and Billy Crystal as white-faced mime caterers (the Shut Up and Eat Mime Catering Service). Alert viewers of This is Spinal Tap will also spot Fran Drescher, Bruno Kirby, Ed Begley Jr., Paul Shaffer and Anjelica Huston in bit parts. The bonus material is conveniently packaged in chronological order and you’re able to select by scene. As in the movie, not all of the extra footage is funny, but fans who can’t get enough of the Tap will be, shall we say, tapped out and topped off.
Other bonus material includes:
· music videos (including “Gimme Some Money” and “Big Bottom”)
· “Catching Up With Marty DiBergi,” a not-that-funny bit by Reiner
· vintage Spinal Tap material (early press appearances from their “Flower People” period)
· commercials Spinal Tap made for Rock ’n Rolls (a microwaveable snack food)
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