Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Seventeen

top50 spinal

#17 — This is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984)
Is there a better compliment for a satirical film than the adoring embrace of those who serve as the target of the comedy? From practically the moment of its release, This is Spinal Tap, Rob Reiner’s mock documentary about a ragged British heavy metal band and their concert tour marked by mounting indignities, was a favorite of the musicians who could reasonably consider themselves the real-world equivalents of the characters in the film. It may not quite have been required viewing on tour buses, but there were always plenty of people toiling in the music industry ready to stand up and testify towards the film’s accuracy as it skewered the pretensions, excesses and general ridiculousness of a profession built upon wielding guitars like not-particularly-subtle phallic stand-ins. Reiner and his collaborators may have used the documentary form as a means to burrow more deeply into their ingenious comic premise, but they wound up with something so spot-on that the affectations of non-fiction style could have just as easily been an honest acknowledgement of the verisimilitude of the work.

And there’s the simple detail that the film is incredibly funny. As the primary members of the group, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Christopher Guest demonstrate that the best route to pinpoint perfect comedy is to begin with strong, consistent characterizations. Famously built around extended improvisations, the actors understood their respective characters deeply, reacting with an engaging freshness to all of the absurd scenarios they were presented with, whether malfunctioning props, dispiriting promotional appearances or impossibly labyrinthine backstage area that cause the ramped up excitement for a concert to dissipate as they fruitlessly maneuver their way to an audience that they simply can’t find. The actors play off each other with a visible trust, even admiration for the invention of their fellow performers. One of the little pleasures of Spinal Tap is the vivid sense that the people onscreen are delighted in discovery as anyone watching.

Considering the inspired directorial efforts that Guest would craft using similar methodologies many years later, it’s probably not surprising that his performance is the strongest of the three. As Nigel Tufnel, Guest is sweet and relaxed, dim and yet insightful. It’s his pride in showing off guitar amplifiers that have be rejiggered to have a peak setting labeled “11” that remains the film’s most famous scene, but it’s another moment with fictional director Marty DiBergi, played by Reiner, that encapsulates the winning contradictions of the character best. Tufnel plays a lovely piece based in the structures of classical music on the piano, impressing and even moving DiBergi with his unexpected depth, at least until he casually notes that the song has the decidedly incongruent title “Lick My Love Pump.” The striking inability of the Spinal Tap rock gods to defy expectations is a major foundation of the film’s comedy. They may change drummers with unrivaled frequency, but personal growth is forever beyond them. It’s clear the same petty disagreements will be with them to the very last chord.

The believability that is the very backbone of the film extends to the music, too. Songs like “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight” and “Big Bottom” aren’t exactly my cup of English tea, but I sure as hell went to high school with plenty of guys who would love them without a shred of irony if they were presented to them free of context. It’s just another example–and an especially unexpected one–of the way that meticulous details elevate comic notions to otherwise unattainable pinnacles. The music makes the movie funnier because it’s just so right. There’s not a single element of This is Spinal Tap that’s unimportant, nothing that’s thrown away or developed casually. As it should be, the filmmakers bring the same admiring conviction to their craft as the fictional band that takes the stage, glaring in wounded discontent as a dwarf trods upon a miniature Stonehenge.