A Thin Line Between Stupid And Clever: The Genius Of SPINAL TAP

Dan Whitehead revisits the brilliant and compulsively watchable rockumentary.

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Whenever we talk about “world building”, we're usually referring to some new fantasy or sci-fi movie where it's deemed incredibly important that we really understand why the Deathkeepers of Thraal are at war with the Kremel Empire. Yet the art of world building applies to any movie – or at least any movie worth watching – even if the worlds being built are rather more down to Earth.

Exhibit A: This Is Spinal Tap, the seminal 1984 “rockumentary” from Rob Reiner and Christopher Guest.

This is Spinal Tap is, without doubt, one of the funniest movies ever made. That's been proven with science, so don't even waste your time trying to suggest otherwise. And, like most beloved comedies, so much of it has passed into cliché through repetition and quotation – what passed for memes before the internet came along – that it's easy to miss the absolutely remarkable depth and texture behind the famous lines.

It's the tale of “one of England's loudest bands,” Spinal Tap, a once B-list rock group now rapidly spiralling towards Z. A hacky director, Marti DiBergi, tags along on the group's first US tour in years, documenting the slow and sad decay of minor celebrity, along with the fractured personalities that make up the band.

There's David St. Hubbins, the preening lead singer, all silk shirts and poodle hair. Lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel is as dumb as a bag of hammers, but has a puppy dog enthusiasm for the trappings of rock stardom. Bassist Derek Smalls is the one caught between these deluded egos, his heroic moustache, tobacco pipe and deadpan baritone bursting the bubble at just the right time.

Running at an incredibly brisk 82 minutes including credits, this is a densely packed movie that uses its episodic documentary format to disguise the fact that it's actually telling a very intimate story about two childhood friends on the verge of losing touch with each other.

So, yes, there are the obvious and memorable set piece gags. The debate over “What's wrong with being sexy?” The album cover that is “none more black.” The realisation that Elvis Presley's grave puts matters in “too much fucking perspective” (and also that you don't want to go ragga). The amps that go up to 11, the cucumber that goes down the pants, the exploding drummers and the timeless confusion over the correct size of Stonehenge. And that's without considering the fleeting moments of genius that are easily missed: the way Harry Shearer's eyes widen as he gazes at the shiny darkness of the Smell the Glove cover, Artie Fufkin's insistence that somebody “kick this ass for a man,” the goggle-eyed hotel clerk who insists “I'm as God made me, sir."

And the songs themselves deserve to be lavished with praise. Spoofing the excesses of heavy metal is like taking a bazooka to a barrel full of fish, but the brilliance of the rock music setting is that Reiner and Guest never need to turn their comedy amps up to 11. Their characters inhabit a real world milieu that is ridiculous enough that just a tiny bit of comedic exaggeration yields massive results. Tracks like Sex Farm and Big Bottom are patently ludicrous, but not so much worse than the hair metal standard for them to feel like cheap sucker punches. It helps that, lyrics aside, many of them are genuinely great songs. The chorus to Hell Hole is pure rock radio joy, while the pomp and ceremony of Stonehenge suggests a poppier, sillier Black Sabbath.

Songs and skits alike, these are all amazing punchlines and grace notes, and the film's pace means that structurally it builds from one high to another. Every new scene is another favourite, which makes way for another classic. It's a movie that is ridiculously, compulsively watchable. Yet on repeat viewings, Spinal Tap reveals itself to be more than just a factory line of quotable rock silliness. There's genuine heart and soul here, deftly realised through little more than facial expressions and casual glances. That's because, joke or not, Spinal Tap is a real band. Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer not only wrote and performed the songs, they created an entire history for the band, each entry of which is realised on screen with remarkable period accuracy.

The shuffling beat pop of The Thamesmen's Gimme Some Money. The sitar-infused psychedelia of Listen To What The Flower People Say, complete with Derek Smalls mouthing “we love you” slightly off-camera. Even the concert footage of Tap themselves. Everything from the cast's ear for musical pastiche to the actual grain of the archive film sells us on the myth that this idiotic group really exists, and has endured a real creative evolution (albeit in its own dumb way).

That's why, as the tour implodes and tag-along girlfriends ignite long-simmering resentments, it doesn't feel like contrived drama. Despite spending less than an hour and a half in their company, David and Nigel really do feel like old friends, and their schism is tinged with genuine pathos. The movie perhaps hurries to a resolution too quickly – if there's anywhere that the short running time hurts, it's here where we needed to really see the gap Nigel leaves – but who could begrudge such an underdog tale its minor triumph before the end credits.

Guest and his co-stars have revived Tap several times over the intervening years, but with limited success. That's sad, but also perfectly appropriate. Spinal Tap remains their best – and best known – movie, largely because its characters feel like they exist outside of the film.

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