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I can’t quite remember exactly when I first saw This is Spinal Tap (1984), but I do know it was sometime in the late 80’s. It was in fairly heavy rotation on cable in various edited forms, and the first few times I only saw bits and pieces—usually the concert scenes. And I have to admit I thought I was watching a legitimate documentary about a real rock and roll band. Yes, I was a kid. But I knew my music, and I just couldn’t figure out how this band slipped under my radar. Of course, it wasn’t long after those first few brief viewings that I realized Spinal Tap was merely parody, and it quickly became a personal favorite, only to get better as I’ve gotten older. With each viewing, which is at least a couple times a year, I discover something new and hilarious. But what I’ve also found with those repeat viewings is that my initial impression of the film when I was kid really wasn’t that far off. This is Spinal Tap is ridiculous, yes, but it is more faithful in its portrayal of the bizarre culture surrounding rock and roll than it’s given credit.
The three main members of Spinal Tap are David St. Hubbins (named after the unusual patron saint of quality footwear), played by Michael McKean; Nigel Tufnel (who astutely points out that there’s no way to dust for fingerprints on a pile of vomit), played by Christopher Guest; and Derek Smalls (whose attempts to prove his last name is in no way a reference to his manhood are revealed in a hilarious airport security sequence), played by Harry Shearer. These three, along with their cricket bat-wielding manager Ian Faith (Tony Hendra) and backing bandmates Viv Savage (David Kaff) on keyboards and Mick Shrimpton (R.J. Parnell) in the perennially doomed drummer’s seat, make up the force behind one of Britain’s loudest bands. On tour to promote their eighteenth album, the controversial “Smell the Glove,” Spinal Tap is accompanied by documentary filmmaker and dog food commercial pioneer Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner, in his directorial debut). DiBergi sets out to depict the highs and lows of a popular rock band on tour, and he discovers there are far more lows as the band falls into dreaded “has-been” status.
David and Nigel are no doubt the heart of the band, with their friendship and professional working relationship going all the way back to their early musical days in bands such as The Originals (then changed to “The New Originals” under threat of pending litigation from the original “The Originals”), and The Thamesmen. There’s also an affection that possibly stretches beyond their brotherly friendship, particularly with Nigel’s unrequited feelings toward David, especially when Jeanine (June Chadwick), David’s girlfriend, joins the tour and inserts herself into the band, Yoko Ono-style. (For the record, I’m a Yoko fan. There were far too many cooks in The Beatles’ kitchen to ensure their survival.) Jeanine’s dedication to the not-so-precise art of complex astrology charting, a love for ridiculous sweaters and attempts at booking a top-billed gig for the band at a sparsely attended social mixer on a military base (coordinated by the always deadpan Fred Willard who mistakenly calls the band “Spinal Tarp”), proves to be too much a strain between David and Nigel. And with each leg of the tour riddled with cancellations, hotel mishaps and malfunctioning stage props, the whole endeavor has gone from the glitzy sheen of a rock-and-roll band commanding stages to a pathetic embarrassment. The final straw comes during the military base gig, with air traffic control feedback bleeding into Nigel’s guitar pickup, prompting Nigel to storm off during a stirring rendition of “Sex Farm,” effectively quitting the band.
So, how is this ridiculous parody close to actual rock culture? Well, take the pod mishap during “Rock and Roll Creation.” There have been numerous tales of elaborate stage set-ups going horribly awry. The one that comes to mind for me is during U2’s PopMart tour in the 1990s. (I attended a concert on this tour in Atlanta.) At the start of each show, the band emerged from a giant disco ball lemon. Well, on more than one occasion, the band became stuck inside the giant prop, in a funny little bit of art-imitating-life-imitating-art. And then you have The Who with their legendary stage antics, from Pete Townshend’s guitar smashing, Roger Daltrey’s impressive mic swinging skills and of course Keith Moon’s penchant for explosive drums. Literally. And you can’t forget Led Zeppelin, possibly one of the greatest rock bands of all time, and certainly one of the best to perform on stage, with their fiery gongs, Jimmy Page and his violin bow and Robert Palmer’s talent for handling live doves.
This is Spinal Tap isn’t that ridiculous after all, is it? But it’s hysterical and definitely one of the best comedies of all time (and a personal favorite of our dear Robert Osborne), and inspired a new form of comedy led by Christopher Guest and his troupe of regulars in McKean, Shearer, Willard, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, Jane Lynch, Ed Begley Jr., Paul Dooley, Bob Balaban and Michael Hitchcock, among many others. If you’ve never seen This is Spinal Tap, give it a watch. And if you have, isn’t it time for a revisit?
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