Friday, March 15, 2013

This is Spinal Tap

When I first watched This is Spinal Tap (1984) many years ago, in high school or middle school, I didn't get it, not thinking it was as funny as its reputation had led me to believe, and yet, over the years, I found myself constantly referring to it and being reminded of it. Maybe I wasn't into music enough at the time and couldn't understand exactly what the movie was targeting. Now, as a huge heavy metal fan, I can recognize and appreciate all the little inside jokes, accurate details, and how dead-on it was.

Spinal Tap is the name of the fictitious heavy metal band that is chronicled in This is Spinal Tap. Director Rob Reiner plays Marty DiBergi, a filmmaker fascinated by one of the loudest bands to come of England, Spinal Tap. He follows the band on its U.S. tour to promote its latest album, "Smell the Glove" and interviews the various members: David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), Nigel Tuffnel (Christopher Guest), and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer). Along the way, concerts are cancelled, equipment malfunctions, an intruding girlfriend forces her way in, the manager quits, and the members fight with each other.

The feature film debut of director Rob Reiner, who would go on to make the likes of Stand by Me and The Princess Bride, This is Spinal Tap is regarded as one of the most successful of mockumentaries. A mockumentary is fictional movie that takes the form of a documentary; characters address the camera, the cameramen are acknowledged, interviews are given, the film presents itself as factual, etc. So convincing was This Spinal Tap in this regard that apparently many people believed it was genuine and the band was real, according to the trivia section of the Internet Movie Database; even Ozzy Osbourne apparently didn't laugh when he saw it because he was convinced of its authenticity.

This pseudo-authenticity (if that's a real term) is key to why the movie works as well as it does. There are some real out-there, silly aspects of Spinal Tap (the drummers apparently have a tendency to spontaneously combust on stage), but because the movie is filtered through a subjective documentary lens, the contrast between the more serious, believable elements and the clearly exaggerated portions serves to accentuate and increase the humor. When the pods containing the band members fails to open, the dimensions of the group's Stonehenge stage piece come in wrong (based on an actual Black Sabbath tour mishap), and the album cover's sexist image is replaced with all black (is this where Metallica got it's idea for the Black Album?), it's funnier because it seems genuine and unplanned. The music is played for laughs, but it's actually catchy, filled with intentionally dumb lyrics, and certainly representing of the style of the time.

Even though the members of Spinal Tap are played by a trio of well-known actors, they look and sound like a real rock group, and it's uncanny: the makeup, the eyeliner, the hair, the spandex (Derek Smalls wears bondage gear that resembles a similar outfit worn by Anvil's Steve "Lips" Kudlow), the spoiled behavior, and the idiotic delusions of greatness. These are guys who have had so much success that now as it's fading, they can't imagine being without it, so they continue on, even as they become laughingstocks reduced to playing as opening acts for puppet shows.

Looking back on This is Spinal Tap, it actually seems rather tame compared to some real acts that followed. Heavy metal has often been taken too seriously by some of its denizens in a way that is easy to be unintentionally funny, but this was made before the advent of reality television (with the likes of Bret Michaels' Rock of Love and Celebrity Rehab), the controversies of Marilyn Manson, and the rise of grunge, alternative, and pop music effectively killing of the mainstream popularity of this genre. This is Spinal Tap was satirical for its time, but over years, it looks more and more like a prophecy of what was to come. If a sequel is ever made, I can imagine the boys attempting an unplugged hip-hop album and winding up on Oprah.

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