Feb 19, 2010

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

When lead singer David St. Hubbins deadpanned, "There's such a fine line between stupid and clever" I knew I was hooked. With the pitfalls and brief moments of success experienced by the band, there perhaps isn't a better quote to sum up the brilliance that is the rockumentary This is Spinal Tap.

The fictional metal group Spinal Tap was first brought to the big screen by fictional director Marty DeBergi (Rob Reiner) in 1984's This is Spinal Tap. I first saw it back in 2002, and at the time didn't have much of an idea what a mockumentary (fake documentary) really was. Shows like The Office and Reno911 now have the format down to a science, and even Christopher Guest, who plays one of the members of Spinal Tap, went on to star in and direct popular fake-docs like 2000's Best in Show and 2006's For Your Consideration.

It's without question that part of my love for This is Spinal Tap comes from its historical context - how it was one of the first mainstream attempts at the mock-genre, how it fused comedy with profound themes about identity and misogyny in rock/metal culture, and how along with mocking and playing into the stereotypes of rockstars, actually managed to create a successful/memorable group (outside of the movie Spinal Tap actually toured briefly).

I remember back in 2003 I wrote an essay about the film for a documentary studies class, commenting on Tap's handling of themes like sexuality, masculinity, and pop culture in general. My paper may have just been an excuse to watch the movie over and over again to call it research, but there is a message. Spinal Tap's charm and some of the most insightful moments come from the groups social commentary about their own position (raising questions like are rockstars really supposed to be role models?). These messages are delivered in an often blunt and precarious manner leading to laugh after laugh (as the group shows, a life of excess often makes it difficult to stay grounded enough for anyone to take you seriously).

Complications for the group revolve around their failing US tour, a racy new album cover, a Yoko-esque girlfriend, problems in management, and a series of mishaps on stage. It's an homage to rock history and the struggles that have plagued hundreds of groups. As a fan of almost all music, I found it easy to get sucked into this realistic world inhabited by characters desperate to fulfill their unrealistic expectations.

The boys of Tap are generally quite content in their bubble, but the realities of the world outside the tour bus seem to overwhelm them as every problem is merely a symptom of a much larger and ongoing conflict. They just want to live 'the dream', but little hiccups (which continue to snowball into bigger ones) keep interrupting. The documentary format allows for some great improvisation and banter, and although it's staged it comes across as relatively honest and revealing. You may not respect the group, but you do come to feel for them.

In yet another set back, the manager declares, "They're not going to release the album, because they've decided the cover is sexist" to which bandmate Nigel replies, "What's wrong with being sexy?".

The layers of the film are fun to explore. The history of the group is well established from their flower-child start in the sixties to their later transition into metal in the late seventies and early eighties. With brief interviews about their various albums and transitions, their lust for the stereotypical rock'n roll lifestyle ultimately comes into question and addresses how important the music really is.

Throughout this back story a recurring joke continues to pop-up about the band's past drummers, who only ever last a few years because of completely random and haphazard deaths. In an interview with DeBergi, Nigel recalls the passing of one drummer and quips, "You can't dust for vomit".

And who can forget the ever popular, "but this goes to eleven, it's one louder" from the hilarious interview scene between Nigel and DeBergi. Delievered with the confidence (or rather ignorance) of a rockstar, the scene in which DeBergi gets a demo of some of the bands equipment only reaffirms that nothing is ever easy to explain when it comes to sex, drugs, and rock'n roll.

If you have a love of music, or really, just a love of comedy it seems hard to go wrong with Tap. For all that the film did in paving the way for the mock-doc genre, for it's comment on rock culture, for it's own strong contributions to music (the soundtrack is also full of original and brilliant material), and for the wit and ignorant charm delivered by the boys of the group, This is Spinal Tap is undoubtedly in my rock, and movie hall of fame.

If you happen to pick up the DVD be sure to listen to the commentary track where the boys explain (in character) how DeBergi edited the film to make them look bad. It's like a brand new movie to hear them comment on the experience of being filmed.

"But enough of my yack'n, let's boogie!"

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