Movie Review #27 / 250 : ‘THIS IS SPINAL TAP’

Spoilers, possibly.

Oh, come on.  You’ve all heard of Spinal Tap.  You all know the ‘this goes to eleven’ joke.  You all know the shtick, the false limey accents, blah blah blah blah blah.  I’m guessing you do, anyway.  This film has been a part of comedy film legend for thirty years, one of the unmoveable monoliths (see also Blazing SaddlesAirplaneAnimal House).  While not quite the Star Wars of comic film, its reverence precedes itself.  That is, it’s one of many on my list that’s perpetually acclaimed.  Unlike Paul BlartSpinal Tap is likely to still be hall-of-fame fodder for decades to come.

And why not?  This has to be one of the earliest ‘mockumentary’ (or as Rob Reiner’s character puts it, ‘Rockumentary’) pieces to have been unleashed.  Long ahead of the ‘fly-on-the-wall’ or ‘docusoap’ television staples that would riddle the small screen from the mid-90s onwards, it’s strange to see fiction portrayed as fact so early in time.  The film follows (for anyone still in the dark on what ST is actually about) a touring rock band, the titular Spinal Tap, as they embark on a number of catastrophic gigs, struggle with the release and promotion of their latest album ‘Smell The Glove’, and deal with the quintessential band tiffs, barneys and splits.  It’s got Rob Reiner, the director of the film, playing the director of the fictional documentary.  As confusing as it sounds, this gives it, as mentioned, a fairly unique slant – the characters, the band and the history are all fictional, and are all ridiculous in subtle, but many ways – but we’re being given an insight as if this were an actual documentary.  This style of comedy wouldn’t catch mass wildfire until the late 1990s with the emergence of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s TV projects (The OfficeExtras, Life’s Too Short), and given how it’s no longer a style of storytelling or joke-pulling that’s unique, this perhaps makes Spinal look a wee bit dated.  Certainly, as mockumentary comedies have increased in number, the bar has naturally been raised.

But, still – this is an extremely funny film.  I can’t deny that.  The jokes derive from the band’s utter insistence on the power of their music and their popularity is undying – whereas in reality, they’re anything but mainstream.  The musicians are all, without exception, delusional in their prowess – they can play, credit due – but they can’t pull the crowds.  Their choosing to play ‘Sex Farm’ at a glorified tea dance is an especially funny moment which ultimately leads to lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel leaving the group, before returning upon the news that the aforementioned song is ‘Number Five in Japan’.  The vast majority of the humour is satirical of the music industry, and obviously of the inner workings of the British rock band.  There’s more than a few Beatles and Stones references in here (the ‘Yoko Ono effect’ getting pastiched rather blatantly), and given the stories you hear about some of these bands across the years, Spinal Tap in some ways comes off as far more satirical than it is ridiculous. The humour is constantly playful, verbally slapstick (if that’s a term, if not, I’ve coined it), and never mean-spirited.  It’s a very ‘sunny’ picture.  You really feel for these guys, and despite their protestations and delusions of grandeur, you somehow want them to succeed – but you don’t mind laughing when things go awry.

Despite all this, it is dated.  I can’t avoid that.  It’s a very, very good film that will survive thirty years without a blemish, however – but the impact this had thirty years ago is not one that survives the folly of time.  The humour is also pretty exclusive – if you have less than a passing interest in, or knowledge of the ‘rock band’ as a genre, you’re unlikely to raise more than a chuckle or so.  It’s whimsical enough to appeal to many people – but its satire is its strongest facet.

PROS: Likeable characters.  Clever satire.  Unique style (for the time).

CONS: Very dated now.  Humour may be lost on a wider scale.

7/10 – I liked this.  I don’t think it’s something I’d buy on DVD, or would even watch again within the year – but there’s a lot of clever touches, and stylistically, it was incomparable.  Long may it stand as an epoch-maker, as opposed to a world-beater.

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