After doing for heavy metal what Blazing Saddles did for westerns, This Is Spinal Tap also managed to spark a minor cottage industry known as the Christopher Guest mockumentary. Now, Tap was hardly the first fake rock documentary, since The Rutles had been around for several years. Eric Idle’s spoof of Beatlemania, however, never got near the National Film Registry as did Rob Reiner’s affectionate yet lacerating take on head-bangers.
For the three or four people who don’t know already, This Is Spinal Tap purports to document the death throes of an aging heavy metal act embarking on its first U.S. tour in six years. They are frontman David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), guitar player Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) and bass player Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer). Every since the early sixties, Spinal Tap has never met a musical trend it couldn’t belatedly follow, morphing from Beatles knockoff through hippie psychedelia to the ponderous pretension of heavy metal. Their only distinguishing characteristics are their loudness, their punctuality and a mortality rate among their drummers rivaled only by that of kamikaze pilots.
Journeyman commercial director Marty DiBergi (Reiner) follows the band through what could only be called the Murphy’s Law Tour. Gigs are canceled, on stage gags go awry, hotel reservations are screwed up and a record store autograph session is a disaster. Their embattled manager, Ian Faith (Tony Hendra), cricket bat in hand, assures them that all is well, even though their record label is having a heart attack over their latest album cover.
When David’s girlfriend, Jeanine (June Chadwick), joins the band, the runaway train goes completely off the rails as she begins feuding openly with Ian and Nigel starts sulking like a jealous girlfriend himself. After Ian quits and Jeanine takes over managerial duties, the tour starts to make the Titanic’s maiden voyage look like an unqualified success as they band gets second billing to a puppet show at a theme park.
This Is Spinal Tap is one of their rare movies that seems to work on every single level. The mostly improvised interview segments hit just the right note of clueless pseudo-profundity. It may be comic exaggeration but it wouldn’t be funny if it weren’t true. This movie helps explain why I can’t take musicians and other celebrities too seriously when they start waxing philosophical about the state of the world.
The music is also the perfect mix of spoof with just enough reality mixed in to make jokes work. Sure, it’s bad heavy metal, but you know, I’ll be damned if it isn’t pretty decent bad heavy metal. The filmmakers know their subject well and pepper the film with knowing nods at various bits of real music lore. The songs themselves have an authentic mix of juvenile sexual fantasy and pretentious mysticism, which explains why the soundtrack album actually produced some hit singles.
Like any decent spoof, This Is Spinal Tap holds its subject not for scorn and ridicule but for a kind of affectionate derision. Rob Reiner and company look with a lot of sympathy these denizens of music’s bottom rungs. The characters are surprisingly lovable in their clueless faith in their own limited talents.