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This Is Spinal Tap (1983)

by on 2011/04/10


“It’s such a fine line between stupid and, uh…”

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Mixing an album in “Doubly” . . . tiny dancers tripping over Stonehenge . . . getting repeatedly lost backstage . . . knobs with numbers that go up to eleven. These jokes are common touchstones to comedians and musicians alike. They act as a shorthand for accident, ignorance, and pretension, in varying measures. To employ them suggests we believe ourselves less fallible than their storied victims. On the other hand, our superiority is never so great we wouldn’t spend time with them.

“They” are David St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel, and Derek Smalls of Spinal Tap, the fictional contender for loudest band in England. Or perhaps I should say “once-fictional”, for their masterminds — Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer respectively — have since reunited on occasion, and in character.

It’s difficult to remember how rare their feature debut must have seemed on release. Long before Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat), the Offices, and the (later) films of Guest with Eugene Levy, Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap was fairly ahead of the curve.

Despite my respect for Guest, and being aware of his dislike of the term, I maintain it’s fair to call their breakthrough an early mockumentary. Certainly the form was explored before — as in The Rutles — but Tap brought the concept to the masses.

Their tale follows the exploits of fading rock stars on a failing tour. Intercut with then-current footage are various archival clips and interviews catching up the past. Despite a promising history, their present reality is one beset with cancellation, criticism, flagging sales, insecurity, rivalry, various disasters, and some meddling hangers-on. The stress and tension manifest themselves in panicked, irrational behaviour: petty complaints, squabbling, extreme revisions, and attrition.

An impressive ensemble fills out the smaller parts, among them Ed Begley Jr., Paul Benedict, Dana Carvey, Billy Crystal, Fran Drescher, Howard Hesseman, Anjelica Huston, Bruno Kirby, Patrick MacNee, Paul Shaffer, and Fred Willard. The larger roles are taken on by June Chadwick as David’s girlfriend Jeanine, Tony Hendra as manager Ian, and director Rob Reiner himself as Marty DiBergi the, er, director.

Assuming you’re not the subject of Tap’s satire, I’d venture to say you’d enjoy it, or you just haven’t seen it yet. Like the Guest/Levy series — including Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind — the combination of improvisation and distillation make a powerful end result. It’s hard to critique its energy, spontaneity, and keenly observed insights, wrapped in laugh-track free objectivity.

If pushed to criticize, I’d only have one minor quibble. Guest, McKean, and Shearer are now famous in their own right, and it’s comparatively difficult to focus on their roles. I found myself slightly distracted noticing Shearer’s distinctive voice emanating from radios and public address systems at different points in the production. No small thanks to Spinal Tap, their anonymity is over.

That distraction was not my prevailing impression, however, which is fortunate in a work of such brevity. In fact, at 83 minutes’ length, brevity might well be one of This Is Spinal Tap’s greatest strengths. Rewatchability goes way up when the experience remains so lean, moves this quickly, and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Well, that and it’s damned entertaining.

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Rated 14A (Canada) / R (United States)

83 minutes

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