Tuesday, December 14, 2010

THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984): The Story of Rock & Roll

The problem with watching This is Spinal Tap is that it comes too close to looking like an actual documentary of a Rock & Roll group.  The humor almost doesn’t work because the musicians in this bogus band barely sound any more inane than real musicians.  The tabloids are full of stories of rock musicians involved in messy divorces or paternity actions, and the quotes that are printed indicate we are dealing with quite a number of vacant minds and personalities.  Rock bands have trashed hotels by racing motorcycles through them.  God only knows how many rock stars have been arrested for possession of drugs.  The typical demise of these individuals usually concerns drug overdoses, the inhaling of one’s own vomit, airplane crashes or the accidental or intentional shooting of one’s self in the head.  And we’ve already witnessed the cable television series Ozzie and Sharon.  It’s difficult to create a parody of some phenomena that already seems like a parody.
Yet Spinal Tap does work.  It jumps back and forth so that we can see the band when it originally formed in the 1960s and then brings them up to the present time when the movie was made in 1984.  We see the band in its Beatles phase, the Rolling Stones phase, the Who phase, David Bowie phase, the Kiss phase, and probably some other phases that I missed.  Spinal Tap promotes itself as being the loudest Rock & Roll band in the world.  The amplifiers the band members use go up to 11 instead of the usual 10.  Nigel (Christopher Guest), the lead guitarist for Spinal Tap, is very proud of this innovation.  Hits like Sex Farm and Big Bottom (about big bottomed girls) put them at the top of the charts.  The one mellow song that they performed that Rob Reiner (the interviewer in the documentary) refers to as being “beautiful” and sounds like an actual classical composition, was entitled Lick My Love Pump.
The two founding members of the band are Nigel and the lead singer, David (Michael McKean).  Like occurred with the Beatles, the two leads disagree on which direction the band should now take since their popularity has been waning in recent years.  Derek (Harry Shearer), the bass player who has been with the band since the very beginning, is concerned about the rift, but understands the difficulties in bringing two such musical geniuses such as David and Nigel together.  Spinal Tap has also been plagued by the mysterious deaths of several different drummers (including one who internally combusted on stage).  To begin with, Spinal Tap received a large amount of adverse publicity when the album sleeve for Smell the Glove showed a naked woman all greased up and wearing a dog collar.  The band is at a loss as to why there is a problem.  Various vendors who planned on carrying the album refuse to stock this particular album in their stores.  David’s girlfriend then takes over as manager of the group to try and salvage their reputation, and this does not go over well with Nigel.  Venues to hold their concerts are also getting scarce.  David’s girlfriend makes business decisions based on the advice of her astrologer.  When David’s girlfriend schedules them to play at a formal gala on a military base (where the fifty or so guests were wearing tuxes and formal evening gowns and were not quite ready for what they were to hear), Nigel stomps off of the stage and refuses to reappear with the band.  Of course, the movie has a happy ending.  After Nigel comes across David before one of Spinal Taps concert and graciously wishes the band good luck, David is so touched by this gesture that he invites Nigel onto the stage about half-ways into the concert.  Nigel plays one of his blistering guitar riffs, and the legend of Spinal Tap continues.
As a friend of mine says, the movie is what it is.  If you were to show it to a gullible friend, they may very well buy into it as a movie about an actual rock band.  The movie is kept short (just over 80 minutes long) and it never overdoes its shtick.  That it does occasionally drift towards being too close to the truth is not always in its favor.  I recall never being able to finish watching the movie Clueless because the characters in that movie reminded me too much of the friends of my teenage daughter.  Since that same daughter never went onto join a rock band, I can still safely watch This is Spinal Tap as a ridiculous satire and not have to take it too personally.
December 4, 2006 
© Robert S. Miller 2006

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