This Is Spinal Tap

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THIS IS SPINAL TAP

7/10

dir. Rob Reiner
scr. Reiner, plus main cast

cin. Peter Smokler
stars Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer
82 minutes!!

It seems oddly pointless to go into detail about a comedy as funny, or as well known, as This Is Spinal Tap – if you haven’t seen it by now, do so. And if you haven’t seen it for a while, go again. That’s about all that needs to be said about a film which too long ago passed beyond even cult status – taken for granted to such a degree that I’d guess most people would look it up in film guides under ‘S’ rather than ‘T’.

It’s often forgotten, however, that This Is Spinal Tap spoofs film making as much as it mocks the music industry in general and heavy metal in particular. Reiner’s main target is the ‘rockumentary,’typified by Martin Scorsese’s awestruck Band tribute The Last Waltz. Though he looks much more like John Milius, Reiner himself takes the Scorsese role as ‘Martin DiBergi’ – that name representing one of Tap‘s rare examples of heavy-handed humour.

In fact, Reiner’s whole to-camera prologue falls into the same category, its wink-wink clumsiness standing out all the more glaringly alongside the brilliantly deadpan remainder of the movie. While the Monty Python team would probably have resorted to ironic mugging, McKean, Guest and Shearer play it refreshingly straight, transforming what could have been laughable caricatures into convincing comic characters and giving the mounting tensions between the band an extra charge of believability and humour that sustains the sketch-type material to feature length.

This Is Spinal Tap feels like a two-hour movie with (almost) all the unfunny or slow bits taken out – a mass of footage ruthlessly pruned down to a breakneck 82 minutes. Not a single moment of screen time is wasted – even the closing titles play out over brief snippets of improvised interviews with the principals, with as in the rest of the movie, pipe-smoking Shearer stealing the show from the flashier McKean and Guest, despite the fact that his English accent veers unnervingly itno Dick Van Dyke territory. Then again, ‘transatlantic’ accents are commonplace enough in the rock world – see (or rather ‘hear’) Toni Collette in Velvet Goldmine, a film which This Is Spinal Tap oddly prefigures, just as it harks back to Brian DePalma’s 1974 mock-epic Phantom Of The Paradise.

Of course, Spinal Tap‘s terrific stream of set-pieces (“Stonehenge” arguably reigning supreme) and one-liners has made it a victim of its own success – nothing dilutes the impact of a joke than repetition, and, as with Python, Tap has unfortunately acquired a legion of fans who can spend many happy hours reciting whole sequences. Not Reiner’s fault, of course, rather a tribute to the intricately detailed, painfully accurate script. If the BBC documentary Deep Purple People is to be believed, however, this is, if anything, a toned-down version of the real thing.

by Neil Young
Back to Film Index