Jordan Hiller's 25 Essential 80's Movies List continues with
#24 This is Spinal Tap
Today, watching 1984’s Rob Reiner comedy classic This Is Spinal Tap – a movie that feels far older than its born on date – one is instantly struck by how familiar the whole mockumentary genre has become. In fact, and feel free to call me a heretic, Spinal Tap will come off to a sophisticated filmgoer as sort of stale. The reason is actually quite the compliment to its central players. In the two decades since This Is Spinal Tap hit theatres and ignited a cult phenomenon, Christopher Guest and company have mastered the formula that was on display in quite a raw format in ’84. Since that time the Guest crew which has grown into a reliable family has churned out far superior and more artistically focused productions like Waiting For Guffman (1996), Best In Show (2000), and For Your Consideration (2006). And there have been a slew of imitators (Borat, The Office, Parks and Recreation) who would be lost without Spinal Tap. The original suffers upon review simply because its novelty has worn off. But being the first mainstream feature of its kind, it deserves due reverence.
In the film, Spinal Tap is the name of a fictitious self-deluding British hair metal band that is pathetically holding on to a semi-successful past and attempting an American tour in anticipation of a doomed album release. As we learn the history of the band it becomes apparent that the trio has conformed to every passing music fad since they were teenagers. It just so happens that the 80’s calls for long hair, obscenely suggestive lyrics, tight feminine attire, and stuffed crotches. The band members along with their harried manager seem to be sublimely oblivious to their washed up status, and almost hoping to will success through sheer irrational optimism. We find them about to embark on the tour as a film crew follows and records every terribly awkward moment. From gigs being cancelled, to empty venues, third class accommodations, to technical snafus on stage, to band member dysfunction - it’s all captured and accompanied by interviews of the relevant players relating to the action in real time. One thing that has vastly improved in the decades since is the actors’ improvisational technique. The interviews that break up the narrative and allow for immediate and absurd reflection, also meant to deepen the level of humor, don’t work as readily as they do in Guffman and beyond. The gimmick is brilliantly conceived and when handled properly can be highly amusing, but the leads in Spinal Tap (namely Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer), while trying very hard to be funny or outrageous, often seem to be content with just showing off the gimmick. The interviews can become a series of extended silence with looks of “I wonder who will say something outlandish next” shared between castmates.
All this is not to say Spinal Tap misses the mark entirely. There are hysterical bits, mainly involving visual humor and the uncannily proportioned Shearer whose mere presence is a laugh. It’s also a cool way to spot some future stars like Billy Crystal and Dana Carvey in meaningless walk on rolls.
Spinal Tap will always be remembered by those who saw it first run as an ingenious, game changing riot that combined the irreverence of Monty Python with the ambition of Woody Allen. It took another decade for the filmmakers to bring the concept to its fully realized potential. To take the ten that is Spinal Tap and begin making movies at eleven.