Thirty Years Ago, THIS IS SPINAL TAP Introduced the Fine Line Between Stupid and Clever

An appreciation of one of the greatest comedies of our time.

When ABC passed On THE T.V. SHOW -- a 1979 sketch comedy pilot starring All In The Family’s Rob Reiner -- they had no idea that they’d just passed up the opportunity to introduce the world to one of the most influential and enduring musical-comedy acts of all time: Spinal Tap.

Created by Reiner, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer, Spinal Tap was a swaggering, clueless, spandex-clad hair-metal band from the UK, and -- had The T.V. Show been picked up -- the band would have made its debut in a faux-promo video for the song “Rock and Roll Nightmare.” That never came to pass, unfortunately, but something about the Spinal Tap concept had struck a chord with its creators. Several years later, they decided to reintroduce the group in its very own feature film, This Is Spinal Tap.

Ostensibly presented as a documentary by commercial director Marty DiBergi (played by Reiner), This Is Spinal Tap tells the story of “one of England’s loudest bands” as they embark on an extremely ill-fated tour of the United States. From the get-go, we see that the band -- lead singer David St. Hubbins (McKean), guitarist Nigel Tuffnel (Guest), and bass player Derek Smalls (Shearer) -- is utterly clueless, lacking in both self-awareness and anything resembling street smarts. But for as dumb as Spinal Tap (and virtually every other character they encounter on their journey across the States) is, Reiner also makes it clear that these guys really do know how to rock.

This is crucial to This Is Spinal Tap’s enduring popularity. If Spinal Tap were just a terrible band, the story being told would be unbelievable, and the joke would quickly grow tiresome; Tap’s idiocy would be pathetic, something for which the audience could only feel pity (or worse: aggression). Even if everything else in the film were exactly the same, This Is Spinal Tap still wouldn’t quite work as a comedy because the trio of bumbling fools at the center of Reiner’s mockumentary wouldn’t be likable. We wouldn’t root for them to succeed. We wouldn’t think, “Y’know, I think I’d actually pay to see this band put on a show.”

In song after song, McKean, Guest and Shearer prove (as they later would in Guest’s A Mighty Wind, one of the many mockumentary projects Spinal Tap’s members would “reunite” for in the years that followed) that they know how to rock. As obviously over-the-top as Spinal Tap’s lyrics can be (“Big Bottom, Big Bottom/Talk about mud-flaps, my girl’s got ‘em”), the music at the center of This Is Spinal Tap is genuinely awesome, a concrete foundation on which Reiner cleverly builds a very silly temple to swaggering rock’n’roll.

If Reiner’s film works because of the band’s musical talent, it endures because of the actors’ comedy chops. This Is Spinal Tap is truly one of the funniest films ever made, mandatory viewing for both comedy connoisseurs and film geeks. The film’s influence is huge, leaving telltale fingerprints on virtually every musical-comedy project and mockumentary that’s been released in the years since its release. Without Spinal Tap, it’s possible there’d be no Waiting For Guffman or Best In Show.Anvil: The Story Of Anvil might never have been made. We might never have experienced the majesty of Flight Of The Conchords. I mean, my God, without This Is Spinal Tap, there might never have been a Tenacious D. The mind reels.

Skipping Spinal Tap will have implications on your very ability to have fun. Do so, and you risk being utterly lost whenever a friend mentions that something “goes to eleven.” Oblique references to Stonehenge will fly right over your head. People will feel sorry for you in karaoke bars when you aren’t able to sing along to “Tonight We’re Gonna Rock You (Tonight).”

Featuring guest appearances and cameos from a murderer’s row of comedic talent (including Billy Crystal, Paul Shaffer, Fran Drescher, Bruno Kirby and Fred Willard) and what may very well be the funniest performances Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer have ever committed to film, Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap is among the very best comedies ever made, a joyous celebration of rock’n’roll excess and dimwitted buffoonery. It is a mockumentary without equal.

To paraphrase a lyric from the great David St. Hubbins: “Little girl, it’s a great big world/but there’s only one Spinal Tap.”

This was originally published in the This is Spinal Tap issue of Birth.Movies.Death. See Spinal Tap at the Alamo Drafthouse this month!