Last week I talked about a year that didn’t really have many movies that jumped out for me. A lot of good movies, but very few that I felt really passionate about. I ended up talking about the Dead Zone, a movie I really enjoy, and ended up becoming my favorite movie of 1983, primarily because it just stood out among a rough batch. And, this week I get to experience the opposite problem. Because, for whatever reason, 1984 was firing on all cylinders, creating a whole litany of movies that are perfectly up my alley, generating a bunch of movies that I really and truly love, and which were very foundational movies for me when I was younger. And, weirdly enough ,that took the form of a lot of larger than life, high concept movies. I feel like the obvious choice for 1984 was probably Ghostbusters, a movie that looms large among the films of 1984. And, shockingly toxic fanbase aside, I really do love Ghostbusters. It’s a funny and spooky movie that hit me at a very specific place when I was a kid, and it really was hard to not pick it as my favorite film of the year. But, like I said, 1984 is stacked. We could have talked about the original Terminator film, an almost perfect little sci-fi film, but I’ve always been more of a Judgement Day guy myself. We could have taken another trip with Indiana Jones to talk about Temple of Doom, a movie that gets a lot of guff from people, but which I still think is the second best of the series, incredibly weird choices and all. I also came extremely close to picking the insane Christmas horror flick Gremlins, a huge favorite of my childhood that kind of helped establish the idea that little kids like being scared too, while also segueing perfectly into weird Joe Dante slapstick. I could have taken a real nostalgia trip to talk about the Neverending Story, a really fun adaptation of one of my favorite childhood novels, and a movie that means a whole lot to me. Or, we could have gotten real weird and tried to figure out what in the world is going on in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, oneo f those weird cult movies that I truly and thoroughly love. But, in the face of all of that weird sci-fi, horror, and fantasy, I ended up choosing a film that may be a tad surprising. But, any hesitations I may have felt towards highlighting it vanished as soon as I turned the movie on and was reminded what a perfect experience it is. Because comedy just rarely gets better than This is Spinal Tap.
This film began life as a failed sketch from comedians Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer, along with director Rob Reiner when they were trying to get a show called the TV Show made. That show never got picked up, but one of their sketches stuck in their minds, the story of a cheesy rock band called Spinal Tap. So, the quartet decided to try and turn the idea into a movie, and pretty quickly realized that the type of film they wanted to make really didn’t fit in with traditional Hollywood comedies. They couldn’t crack any sort of script for the film, so they decided to ad lib almost everything, which wasn’t exactly an easy sell. But, after recording a short demo of what they intended to do, they ended up catching the attention of television producer Norman Lear, who seemed to understand what they were trying to do, and backed the project. This allowed them to make the film in the way they wanted to, a method which has grown more common in later years, but was pretty revolutionary for the time, primarily focused around ad libs instead of written content. But, that didn’t mean they were making it all up from whole cloth. Because pretty early on they decided that this movie would be a faux documentary, poking fun at this ridiculous hard rock band, which meant that they could take all manner of stories and legends from real rock stars, and put it into the movie. They scoured other band documentaries, and any sorts of stories that real performers had to create the lives of Spinal Tap, making a film that became incredibly realistic to any rock star who watched it, lending it a strange air of authenticity. But, like so many movies I talk about in this project, it didn’t really find its audience at first. It was well-reviewed at the time, but it wasn’t really a box office smash. However, as home video and cable movie channels became more prevalent, This Is Spinal Tap was sent on the cult movie trajectory, eventually becoming a massively influential and beloved film, hitting pop culture in a really powerful way, and ushering in a whole new era of the mockumentary. And it’s still incredibly funny.
This is Spinal Tap is set up to be a documentary following Spinal Tap, a rock band which at one point was on top of the world, but has fallen on hard times. Documentary filmmaker Marty Di Bergi is fascinated by Spinal Tap, having followed them in their early career, and has set out to make a documentary about their journey surrounding the release of their latest album, Smell the Glove. Unfortunately, the band has seen better days. They’re currently composed of singer David St. Hubbins, guitarist Nigel Tufnel, bassist Derek Smalls, and then a keyboardist named Viv Savage and a drummer named Mick Shrimpton, but they aren’t really that important. Especially because Spinal Tap drummers have a terrible history of dying brutal and mysterious deaths. The Band has had many permutations over the years, going from being a pop band to a hippie band, and finally to a heavy metal band, which has given them their most success. But, that success is rapidly fading, as shown by the fact that a shocking amount of shows on their current tour are being cancelled at the last minute due to lack of interest.
And, to make mattes worse, they’re having a lot of problems getting their newest album in stores due to its incredibly sexist cover. And that bit of tension is made much worse when Davids girlfriend Jeanine arrives for the rest of the tour. She hates Nigel, and is constantly trying to take over the band, pushing them into incredibly detrimental places, all while trying to boost David’s role in the band. The band continues to tour around, playing smaller and smaller shows while having all sorts of ridiculous misadventures, like getting lost in the arena and unable to find the stage, getting trapped inside strange pods, and just general stage malfunctions. And, while all of that is going on we occasionally cut to interviews with the various band members, showing them to be utter buffoons, really unaware of their slow slide into irrelevancy. But, it becomes impossible to ignore that slide when their album is finally released, and it’s generally ignored, even to the point that no one shows up for an event where they will be signing the album. This then pushes them to try and pull out all the stops, deciding to revitalize an old stage show they used to put on based around Stonehenge mythology. Unfortunately, that results in them getting an 18 inch high prop, which does very little to excite audiences.
And, while things get more and more dire, the band decide to fire their manager Ian, and thanks to David’s pushing, they let Jeanine become the new manager. Which, doesn’t go over well with Nigel, who starts threatening to quite the band. Di Bargi at that point assumes that the band is finished, but David pushes them on, forcing them into a series of even more disastrous than usual performances, all thanks to Jeanine’s inability to manage the band. They play a show at a United States Air Force base that ends up pushing Nigel over the edge, finally quitting the band.Which then leaves just David and Derek to carry the band as they play at state fairs and amusement parks, getting second billing behind puppet shows. They then have to face facts, and start thinking about ending Spinal Tap so they can go their separate ways, clearly abandoning a sunken ship. However, right before they’re able to give up, Nigel returns with strange news. Their album is doing amazingly well in Japan. So, following in Cheap Trick’s footsteps, the band decide to abandon America and embrace Japan, selling a series of sold-out shows, and getting one more taste of success.
This is Spinal Tap is one of those comedies that have completely entwined itself with popular culture, reaching the point where several of its gags have become just part of the fabric of some sort of cultural collective unconsciousness. Gags like “these go to eleven,” are just part of culture at this point that you might forget what it comes from, or how funny it actually is in context of the film it’s from. And yet, from the first moment I turned this movie on again, I found myself grinning ear to ear, cackling with laughter over jokes I’d seen dozens of times, and just generally reliving this hilarious film as if it were the first time all over again. It’s a surprisingly short film, with very little plot, and no real discernible script. And yet, it all comes together almost entirely based on the skill and chemistry of the lead actors. This type of film-making, where there’s no real script and performers are encouraged to ad lib and basically just live in the moment and make the film as funny and realistic as possible, has become pretty popular and successful in recent years, but this film was a very early adopter of it, and certainly an early success of it. And it’s what has made this film work as well as it has, and gain as big a following as it has. Guest, McKean, and Shearer are all hilarious, and their pitch perfect parodies of these larger than life figures is absolutely a beautiful thing to behold. They are able to bring the film to life in a tremendous way, making these three numbskulls live in the same world, and thus making all of their weird shenanigans feel both completely outlandish, but at the same time very logical, since they’re all living in the same absurdist world.
But, one of the things that is most fascinating about This is Spinal Tap, and one of the reasons that I think it endured past its rather tepid initial release, was the fact that despite their best efforts, this wasn’t a completely absurd world. As mentioned earlier, quite a few of the gags in this movie are based on actual events, or at least rumors of actual events. And, as a result, this movie had a shocking amount of authenticity to it, creating a story that apparently felt very realistic to various rock stars, or performers of any kind. And, it was through that authenticity that the film started getting passed around, beloved for poking fun at the hilariously serious nature of these musicians. Which, is kind of the whole point of mockumentaries. Spinal Tap is by no means the first mockumentary. There had been several made before it, but it was one of the most successful ones, and it certainly spurred Christopher Guest to essentially make an entire career around this very niche subgenre. This film takes the serious, almost academic qualities of a documentary, and puts it onto a comedy, making it so that a story that would probably be funny on its own becomes that much more ridiculous. We like to think we live in a serious world, full of serious people, and that’s usually what a documentary can help bring to life. But, by using the framing of a documentary on a comedy we get to see the world in it’s real, absurdist glory.
This is Spinal Tap was written by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Rob Reiner, directed by Rob Reiner, and released by Embassy Pictures, 1984.
Categories: Cinematic Century