Thursday, April 28, 2011

"This Is Spinal Tap" (1984)

Starring Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Rob Reiner
Written by Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer
Directed by Rob Reiner
Rated R - Language
Running Time: 90 minutes

This Is Spinal Tap [Blu-ray]Is there a greater topic for a mockumentary than a has-been 80s rock'n'roll band?  Probably not.  1984's "This Is Spinal Tap" is pure gold, full of ludicrously subdued humor wrapped up in such an incredible sense of reality that it's hard to believe this movie isn't real.  

Spinal Tap, a British rock band consisting of frontman David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) and bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer), is documented on the 1982 United States promotional tour of their latest album, "Smell the Glove."  Documentary director and admitted Tap fan Marti DiBergi (Rob Reiner) and his crew discuss the origins of the band (they had to change their name from The Originals to The New Originals when they found out there was already a band called The Originals) and on through their super-stardom and do the waning celebrities they are now as "Smell the Glove" nears release.  The band has gone through a number of lineup changes ("37 people have been in this band!) including an endless series of drummers thanks to bizarre events like spontaneous human combustion, a gardening accident and even choking on an "unknown person's vomit." 

All is not well with Spinal Tap.  The cover artwork for "Smell the Glove" has been deemed too sexist and offensive, causing release issues.  Meanwhile, St. Hubbins' girlfriend Jeanine (June Chadwick) is exerting increasing control over St. Hubbins, and by extension the rest of the band, leading to friction with their manager, Ian (Tony Hendra).  When Jeanine becomes manager of the band after Ian quits, Tufnel begins to fray around the edges, and the band threatens to come apart as problems surrounding the tour and "Smell the Glove" continue to mount.

While this plot description sounds totally mundane, that's because... it is.  No plot description of "This Is Spinal Tap" is going to make it sound interesting.  What makes the film so special is that it wraps complete and utter absurdity into a thick layer of the mundane.  Tufnel and St. Hubbins discuss the deaths of their many drummers with such complete matter-of-factness that they might as well be talking about planting tomatoes.  The cast expertly delivers their ludicrous dialogue throughout the entire film, never missing a beat, no matter how ridiculous the words are that are coming out of their mouths.

In one interview, Tufnel plays a lovely piano tune for DiBergi, which he describes as a cross between Mozart and Bach ("sort of a Mach piece, really").  When DiBergi asks him what it's called, he blithely answers, "Lick My Love Pump" as though there could be no other title for a beautiful, classical piano composition.  The whole film is littered with gems like that, interspersed with some truly great faux concert footage with hilarious hard rock songs that mostly seem to revolve around having sex with large women.

The concert footage is also its own special brand of hilarious.  In one segment, the band is supposed to emerge from three large plastic cocoons, except Smalls gets trapped in his and must perform the entire song from within.  In another, the band mistakenly labeled their plans for a large fake Stonehenge prop, leading to the prop being built 18 inches tall rather than 18 feet - their on-stage reactions to seeing this tiny prop instead of the monstrous thing they'd envisioned is truly hilarious.  St. Hubbins' angry rant afterward is downright classic.

"This Is Spinal Tap" is a satire that is just brilliant through and through, full of hilarious dialogue and situations brought to life by an excellent cast.  It tears apart the ego and hubris and the absurd lifestyles of rock bands (many rockers have confessed that the film cuts a little too close to home) and does so with supreme wit.