#84 This Is Spinal Tap
(1984, Rob Reiner)
“These go to 11”
Spinal Tap were the world’s greatest band, a band whose creative influence exceeded all the greats – The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Queen, Terrence Trent-D’Arby, all the greats. So it was only natural that director Rob Reiner would make a documentary about them.
This Is Spinal Tap chronicles the 1984 North American tour for rock band Spinal Tap, consisting of Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins and Derek Smalls. During the course of the tour they struggle with the release of their new album Smell The Glove and deal with the fact that they aren’t as popular as they once were.
Of course, in reality, Spinal Tap consist of comedians Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, and the film-maker following them to produce a documentary on them is real-life director Rob Reiner (the director of the movie itself, in fact). And the whole thing is a parody of the image of the rock star.
Now, my DVD copy of the movie proudly announced the review quote “The funniest film ever made!” and sadly, I disagree with this assessment. While there are plenty of clever moments here, and the movie is definitely funny, I personally didn’t find it as laugh-out-loud hilarious as the hype surrounding the movie makes it out to be.
There are entertaining moments, of course. Seeing bassist Derek Smalls get stopped at airport security because the foil-wrapped cucumber he keeps in his trousers is setting off the metal detectors is entertaining, as is Nigel Tufnel showing off his guitar and amp collection, from telling the director to not even look at his newest guitar to showing off his amps that are “one louder”.
But on the whole, while I enjoyed the movie, it rarely elicited more than a few chuckles from me. The jokes were generally clever, and certainly seemed like a believable parody of the rock star lifestyle, but overall, it didn’t feel as funny as it could have been.
I tried to work out why, and I think generally things are played so subtly that if you squinted a little, you could easily believe this was a real documentary. And while subtlety is fine for comedy – it’s certainly preferable to in-your-face gross-out humour – at times things feel too subtle. It’s incredibly entertaining watching the guys get lost backstage in a maze of corridors, for instance, but the whole thing comes without a punch line, and it boils down to a bunch of guys looking lost for a period of time before the movie goes off and does something else.
For the most part, many scenes are played straight, as if we really are watching a band bickering backstage, with only slightly obscure references to bizarre things slotted into the dialogue. But because real-life rock tours are just as absurd, it feels like Reiner and co never really played up the tropes to their logical extreme.
Indeed, the scenes I mentioned above were how more of the movie should have played out. The famous amps that go up to eleven sequence is inspired, not least because the whole exchange regarding the guitars spirals from believable to absurd, and the blank look on Tufnel’s face when the director suggests that they should have made 10 louder instead of adding 11 is perfect. The “Lick My Love Pump” scene also works because, again, there’s an actual punch line there, and it’s one that’s kind of unexpected.
There’s also an issue that some jokes are so overplayed in the narrative that they lose their impact. The Stonehenge set is a perfect example. It’s brought up at a dinner meeting, then the manager meets the sculptor, who’s made a 16” Stonehenge instead of a 16ft, which is funny, but it then dulls the impact when we see dwarves dancing around it onstage in the following scene. The dwarf sequence is then explained in the argument scene afterwards, and it feels like too much is done with the concept. Simply showing the tiny sculpture on stage then explaining the inch/foot confusion in the argument scene would have worked better in my opinion, as it would have introduced an absurd surprise element and then made it even more absurd by building on it later.
Structurally, the movie does work well. It does leap about all over the place a little, but it works because this is supposed to follow the disjointed slice-of-life feel of a documentary. The fact the movie could easily be mistaken for the documentary of a real band is proof of the movie’s intelligent artistic choices.
I will admit I was a little disappointed with This Is Spinal Tap. I expected something a lot funnier. But it’s entertaining enough, and is clever, so while it’s a stretch to say it’s the funniest movie ever made, it’s just as much of a stretch to suggest it’s a disaster.
Starring Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Rob Reiner, June Chadwick, Tony Hendra & Bruno Kirby
Written by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer & Rob Reiner
Produced by Karen Murphy
Music by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer & Rob Reiner
Cinematography by Peter Smokler
Edited by Robert Leighton
Favourite Scene: The famous guitar/amp scene, where the amps go to 11
Scene That Bugged Me: The whole Stonehenge debacle. Don’t explain the joke before the payoff, guys!
Watch it if: You appreciate the musicians-on-tour conventions that get skewered here
Avoid it if: You’re expecting “the funniest film ever made”