Nimbly traversing the “fine line between stupid and clever,” This is Spinal Tap (1984) rewards multiple viewings because its humour is rarely played for big laughs. One of the reasons I loved Spinal Tap as a music-obsessed teenager was because this faux-documentary about a faux-rock band barely registered as satire—it may as well have been a real movie about a real band. Mirroring the po-faced reverence and hagiographic silliness of so much rock journalism, the film simultaneously satisfies the aficionado and the casual viewer by merely pushing the genre’s absurdities to 11. You don’t need to be a nerd to get the jokes, but it helps. Metro Cinema is bringing back this enduring cult classic for a trio of screenings this month.
This was the very curious directorial debut of Rob Reiner, known mainly to folks at the time as Meathead from TV’s All in the Family. He would eventually prove to be far from an adventurous filmmaker (see And So It Goes for the most recent evidence), with Spinal Tap turning out to be an anomaly. (Indeed, rightly or wrongly, actor/writer Christopher Guest would eventually be considered the film’s true auteur, applying the same semi-improvised strategies to numerous subsequent so-called mockumentaries on which he’s credited as director.) But Reiner’s prosaic framing and cutting, like his performance in the film, fit the material beautifully. For those who’ve yet to see Spinal Tap, I guess I’d better describe that material.
The film follows the eponymous British quintet on tour in the U.S. to promote their latest LP, Smell the Glove. The core members—David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Guest) and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer, hilarious to merely look at)—besides having the most awesome rock names ever, have been together 20 years at this point and undergone several fairly radical changes in style, though the hits played on stage—from the ridiculously cumbersome riffing of ‘Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight’ to the scatological agricultural metaphors of ‘Sex Farm’ to the mighty mud flap anthem ‘Big Bottom’—all fit fairly neatly into the 1970s cock rock idiom. As does the misogyny that typifies their album art. Problems with distribution will lead them to understand “what’s wrong with being sexy,” though the bromance/anti-Yoko triumph of the film’s conclusion upholds the paradigm that the world of all-male rock bands in tour is no place for women.
Anyway, Billy Crystal shows up as a talking mime and the tour is largely a disaster, with numerous cancellations, signings that no one comes to and ill-advised gigs at air bases and amusement parks as the warm-up act for a puppet show, but the boys more or less soldier on, perhaps because they can’t possibly be qualified to do anything else. Except, of course, comedy. You can’t write lines much funnier than “You can’t really dust for vomit,” and the cutaway to Nigel’s solo in which he rubs a violin against his guitar while squinting and doing air-cunnilingus remains obscenely funny to me, even if numerous bands I revere have subsequently done much more ludicrous things to their instruments. Spinal Tap Forever.