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No. 10: “This Is Spinal Tap” (1984)

“I believe virtually everything I read, and I think that is what makes me more of a selective human than someone who doesn’t believe anything.”
~~David St. Hubbins

Gearing up for his band’s Stonehenge-tinged concert, rocker/dim-bulb philosopher Nigel Tufnel* (Christopher Guest) serves up a delightfully vague introduction about the Druids, so mysterious that “no one knows who they were or what they were doing.” He might as well be talking about Spinal Tap, a heavy metal trio in which the members are legends in their own minds. So enraptured with their own mythology are these lovable dolts that they don’t find it odd they play venues with corridors that lead everywhere but the stage.

This is what Rob Reiner gets so perfectly right in “This Is Spinal Tap,” a satire (albeit a kind one) of giant metal egos wading infinitesimal pools of talent: He gives us an in-depth look at not one heavy metal band, but every larger-than-life band that ever existed. Spinal Tap is Everyband, a motley collection of stereotypes (a band member dead from choking on vomit; a Yoko/Paul-esque conflict that splits the band in half) that turn out to be as revealing and universally true as they are hysterical. The men who head up this band are idiots, but they are our idiots, DiBergi assures us, and through his admiring eyes we cannot help but love Spinal Tap, woman-degrading, glove-smelling album covers and all.

In the opening of “This Is Spinal Tap,” we learn that director Marty DiBergi (Reiner himself) has decided to take time from his dog commercial career to create a documentary of his favorite band, Spinal Tap, a two-decades-old English metal band composed of lead singer David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), named after the patron saint of quality footwear; lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Guest), who believes D minor is the saddest key of all; and bass guitarist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer), who sees his role in the band as the “lukewarm water” that tempers the fire-and-ice combo of David and Nigel. DiBergi follows Spinal Tap as the band attempts to tour America and reconnect with fans. This is a huge mistake, the band assuming they have fans to reconnect with. Years of LSD trips and perpetually croaking drummers and horrendous albums — one’s reviewed as a “pretentious ponderous collection of religious rock psalms”; another’s summed up simply as “shit sandwich” — have obliterated the American fanbase.

Nearly all of the droll, wonderful comedy in “This Is Spinal Tap” emerges from this tour, which rapidly devolves into a succession of misunderstandings and shabby bookings by their slimy manager Ian Faith (Tony Hendra). It’s like “The Three Stooges” meets VH1’s “Where Are They Now?” with razor-edged British humor lobbed in for good measure. Spinal Tap plays second fiddle to a puppet show. The guys “headline” a military dance and the aforementioned show where nobody can find the stage, so they don’t perform. Making matters worse is David’s shrewish girlfriend (June Chadwick), who clashes with Nigel over who deserves the credit for being Spinal Tap’s “mastermind.” Watching David, Nigel and Derek crash headlong into the reality of their disappearing fame is reason enough to manifest undying love for “This Is Spinal Tap,” with its mix of satire and slapstick. 

The film’s crack team of comedic actors and Reiner’s direction, though, seal the deal. Nobody whips out one-liners with more deadpan perfection than McKean, a blockhead who says things like “it’s such a fine line between stupid and clever” and doesn’t see how those words apply to him. Shearer’s the understudy here, but he makes a definite impression. Guest somehow manages to tap into Nigel’s oddly touching vulnerability and give us a thrash rocker who’s almost childlike in his naivete. Reiner nicely underscores these performances by treating “This Is Spinal Tap” as an authentic documentary, amassing hours of footage, and so we come to see David, Nigel and Derek as wholly human in their cluelessness; we laugh at their antics, but we want them succeed, or find happiness elsewhere. They matter to us, weird as it sounds, because Reiner makes them real people. And that’s the kind of achievement that never gets old.

*That’s Nigel “We’ve Got Armadillos in Our Trousers” Tufnel to you.