Everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who saw Spinal Tap for the first time and thought it was real. It’s a believable urban legend. Reiner’s brilliant “rockumentary” sends up its subject matter and the documentary form, with such deft perception that confusing it with the genuine article is an easy mistake to make.
Like all great parody, it takes pains never to overstep the mark. None of the characters are really that much more ridiculous than the absurd bunch of bozos who populated the British and American heavy metal scene throughout the ‘80s.
Allegedly, Harry Shearer modelled pipe-sucking bassist and philosophical dunderhead Derek Smalls entirely on the bass player from also-rans, Saxon. And no-one who has seen Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline Of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years could deny that this is piss-taking elevated to the level of high art. The fact that it preceded Spheeris’ trawl through the debris of the LA rock scene by five years suggests that it might also be an instance of sublime prophecy.
That’s not to say, of course, that it isn’t screamingly funny. Few films, if any, can match Spinal Tap for consistent laughs. Every scene is a classic - the band getting lost on the way to the stage, a troupe of roadies frantically attempting to free Smalls from an Alien-like pod at the beginning of a gig, the 18” high Stonehenge triptych descending through swirls of dry ice - take your pick. And what makes it such a seamlessly hilarious ride is the knowing attention to detail: the ball-crushing spandex trousers, the maniacal public school manager, the Yoko-esque disruptive girlfriend, the pompous, preposterous lyrics - and, above all, the all-encompassing fug of self-delusion that compells them to carry on.