EMPIRE ESSAY: This Is Spinal Tap Review

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Spinal Tap, the world's loudest band, is chronicled by hack documentarian Marti DeBergi on what proves to be a fateful tour.


When they first showed This Is Spinal Tap to the British press, the distributors handed out only biographical notes on the fictional band, complete with a lot of priceless detail not included in the film (like a list of all 37 people who had played with the band). Since its stars came out of US sitcoms (All In The Family, Laverne And Shirley) without much of a profile in the UK, it was disturbingly easy to accept the "if you will, rockumentary" as genuine and Rob Reiner in his Scorsese beard and Spielberg hat as "filmmaker Marty DiBergi". There were mutterings around the screening room about why none of us had ever heard of this group, supposedly, "one of England's loudest bands" and what the point was in making a film about such an obviously mediocre crowd of ageing heavy metallurgists. It wasn't until genial old Patrick Macnee showed up in a cameo as Sir Denis Eaton-Hogg, chairman of Polymer Records, that the penny finally dropped and we all realised we were watching a made-up documentary (if you will, mockumentary) of extraordinary brilliance, dancing on that "fine line between stupid and clever".

The greatest laugh-out-loud comedy of the 80s, Spinal Tap has turned out to be an amazingly influential film, without even taking into
account a few Tap revival tours, videos and an appearance on The Simpsons. The Comic Strip crowd responded with the vastly inferior knock-off Bad News and the Tap feel informs Still Crazy, and even real rock biopics like Oliver Stone's The Doors. Movies that explicitly pay homage include the rap-themed Fear Of A Black Hat (1993) and Tim Robbins' paranoid political folkie satire Bob Roberts (1992).

Christopher Guest, the man born to be Nigel Tufnel, has directed Waiting For Guffman and Best In Show in more or less the same style, and mockumentary licks show up in everything from Drop Dead Gorgeous to The Blair Witch Project. So, not only is Tap funny but it was also cinematically innovative, taking elements from real rock documentaries (cf: Don't Look Back, Let It Be, The Last Waltz) and creating a new genre, a totally fresh way of telling familiar stories. Rob Reiner's career may have been up and down ever since, see-sawing between faceless Hollywood star vehicles (A Few Good Men) and oddball comedies (North), but this near-homemade film, an expansion of a 40 minute short and some Saturday Night Live appearances, marked him out as more than just another sitcom grad with residuals to spend.

Tap fans treasure favourite routines and lines: Derek Smalls (Shearer) trapped in a stage pod or setting off an airport metal detector with the foil-wrapped pickle in his underpants; the band getting lost backstage as they try to reach an eager audience ("Hello, Cleveland!"); the undersized Stonehenge triptych descending to be "in danger of being crushed by a dwarf"; the blank looks of the band when confronted with their backlist of bad reviews or a radio DJ's classification of Spinal Tap as "currently residing in the 'Where Are They Now?' file"; the arguments over the offensive cover of the Smell The Glove album; Nigel's tour of his guitar and amp collection ("It's one louder"); "You can't do heavy metal in Doubly"; "It's called Lick My Love Pump". And it's a collection of masterly cameos, from Fran Drescher as publicist Bobbi Flekman (her clones can still be found working in the business) to Bruno Kirby as the Sinatra-loving limo driver, with micro-bits from Billy Crystal and Dana Carvey as mime waiters ("Mime is money!"), Paul Benedict as a huffy gay hotel clerk, Anjelica Huston (name misspelled in the credits) as the monolith builder and Fred Willard - as the jovial air force officer who wants to get the concert over with.

However, it's a lot more than a collection of inspired gags. Copping the Yoko thread from Let It Be (1970), This Is Spinal Tap delivers a genuine plot as childhood friends David St. Hubbins (McKean) and Nigel Tufnel fall out when David's girlfriend Jeanine Pettibone (June Chadwick) worms her way into the band as manager, displacing the long-suffering Ian Faith (Tony Hendra), who memorably characterises the dim girl as dressing "like an Australian's nightmare". It's an achievement that after an hour of jokes at the expense of the crassness and stupidity of Spinal Tap, with hideously accurate parodies of the strutting pretensions of the dinosaurs of rock (Big Bottom, Sex Farm), the film can manage to wring some emotion out of the threat that the band will break up. McKean, whose London accent is letter-perfect, has a great acting moment as he becomes so angry and hurt at his friend's betrayal that he can hardly speak.

There's a happy ending, of course: Nigel makes an onstage comeback and Jeanine is put in her place, and the whole band — with a replacement drummer after poor old Mick spontaneously combusts — head for Japan and the inevitable comeback tour.

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Scarily accurate forefather to the mock doc.