It has long been held as a truism by the English that the Americans, as a nation, do not understand satire. There are many examples where instances of this form of humour have fallen flat on their faces in that market but for those of a certain generation and with a leaning towards the pomp of flamboyant rock music, one film can be cited that washes aside the aforementioned criticism of the state of US comedy. Enter This Is Spinal Tap. Made in 1984, it tells the story of an English rock group on the downward spiral, heading out on an accident prone and highly misguided (in more ways than one) tour. It was/is an oft misunderstood gem that was pigeonholed to an extent simply because of its target. Most would understand the caricatures of slimy politicians or athletes with their brains in their limbs, as depicted in many a newspaper both nationally and locally, but the sidestep of basing a work of absurdity in the world of costumed rock music was always likely to bewilder some and even alienate a portion of the potential audience. For all those familiar with the film (and I sincerely hope that is the majority of you) it will no doubt come as no surprise that to this day there remain new viewers who still mistake its lead figures for real musicians.
Directed by Rob Reiner (who only two years later helmed the seminal coming of age friendship masterpiece Stand By Me, thus showing his capability to diversify), who also appears as the fictional narrator and director of the documentary, who utters the immortal line “....or if you will, rockumentary”, this is a nuanced piece of comedic acting that takes elements from so many different areas of comedy that categorisation is almost something to be avoided here. For those with a broad taste in humour, there is both astute observation as well as basic physical comedy, the only caveat being that much of the minor instances may not tickle the viewer quite as much if they are not aware of the rock scene that forms the foundation for the whole set-up. Cited by varying sources as being based on numerous real life bands, the most common example and the one which is generally agreed holds the most credence, is that of the English group Saxon. Complete with their flyaway hair, misjudged dress sense, historic imagery and numerous stories of rock living, the likeness isn't hard to see. However, if this were nothing more than a simple parody of one source then the scope for laughs would be severely limited. The beauty of This Is Spinal Tap is the way in which it shifts between set-ups with ease, moving from the awkwardness of a record company room full of bigwigs and intellectual superiors, to the grandeur of performances that inevitably go wrong. The pacing allows a fluidity that is missing from virtually all other films that have attempted in the intervening 25 years to accomplish the same levels of hilarity. It is all too easy to simply praise the well crafted humour of the piece, but all the effort placed into the writing would be for nought if it were not for the exquisite timing, not only in terms of seconds and split seconds during line delivery, but also in terms of the way in which the journey the band takes us on is structured. Large scale disasters are well spaced out, with the interim drawing more attention to the rising friction that swells within the ranks of the band. The director clearly has to take equal plaudits with the actors and writers when it comes to realising this vision and polishing the edges of the experience to a fine gloss.
Don't let that fool you into thinking that the acting and writing themselves are first rate, it's just that the direction doesn't generally get as many mentions as it arguably deserves. The cast are always highlighted as being archetypes of the comedic arts and if you were expecting this review to be any different in its appraisal then I'm afraid you'll be sorely disappointed. There isn't one iota of the subtle moments of dumbstruck looks and improvised dialogue that doesn't hit its mark with precision accuracy. I think it's fair to say that a fair amount of improvised dialogue in films will feel like a slight sidestep from the central script, but nothing could be farther from the truth in this regard. The lazy fly on the wall documentary style lends itself perfectly to off the cuff remarks or characters delivering lines without being positioned squarely in frame. For those who perhaps have a high regard for such modern TV classics as The Office or Phoenix Nights with it's lackadaisical approach, I highly recommend viewing Reiner's rockumentary in order to see the clear roots of Peter Kay's and Ricky Gervais' much lauded later works.
The line-up that accompanies us through this ramshackle tour is a veritable cornucopia of music industry stereotypes, which doesn't necessarily mean that they don't ring true, as a host of such people have since testified to the reality of these comic creations. It would be easy to fall into clichéd territory but the beauty of the script is that it gives each character a distinct quality that separates them from each other. The central trio of David St Hubbins (guitar and lead vocals) who is a figure intent on Jagger-esque semi-philosophising without much coherence, Nigel Tufnel (lead guitar) who is the true simpleton of the pack exuding a naive nature like a Labrador puppy, and Derek Smalls (bass guitar) a far more intelligent man hiding his middle aged composure behind his want to see out this tour and concealing vegetables down his trousers. All three of them tower over much of the run time as understandably they are the backbone of the band and founder members. They are joined by keyboard player Viv Savage and current drummer Mick Shrimpton. I say “current” as one of the true absurdities of the film that deviates from reality is the variety of mishaps that continues to plague the sticksmen in their midst, who perish due to such instances as a ”bizarre gardening accident”, choking on vomit (though you'll note it was apparently someone else's vomit, a mystery which remains unsolved as Nigel so aptly puts it “you can't dust for vomit”) and spontaneous combustion. Other than these mild trips into fantasy, the majority of the film's duration is spent delving into the profoundly minor trials and tribulations of a rock group that has had its day. These faces are accompanied by many smaller roles that are no less stellar, with names such as Patrick Macnee, Billy Crystal, Bruno Kirby, Fred Willard and Ed Begley Jr being instantly recognisable. Thus, the rib-tickling side of things is well catered for but the cherry on the top of This Is Spinal Tap is the music itself. Far from an out and out parody, the tunes composed are not only funny in terms of their witty lyrics that lampoon the sexualisation of the era's rock and roll, but they also stand up as pretty decent tracks in their own right. True, they won't dislodge OK Computer or Revolver at the top of many a list of the greatest albums, but they are often no more ridiculous than some of the source material they are paying homage to.
When all is said and done, there are far too many positives and laugh-out-loud scenes to paste into this review. Either you know this work of comic genius and already own it/have it on your wish list, or you're blissfully unaware of the delights in store. Either way, I've yet to hear a genuine criticism that can be levied at this film that stands up to scrutiny. Some may say it has aged, but I disagree strongly with this statement, the comedy within is as fresh today as it was a quarter of a century ago - the true greats keep on giving and no matter how many times this is viewed, there will always be something to get you giggling. In terms of comedies that have acted as well thought out films in their own right, this is right up there with Some Like It Hot in my opinion, holding the attention, layering the characterisation, bundled with a tight script and with acting that positively makes those words come to life - simply timeless.
Our Review Ethos