#154) This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
OR “Mock & Roll”
Directed by Rob Reiner
Written by Reiner & Christopher Guest & Michael McKean & Harry Shearer
Class of 2002
The Plot: Filmmaker Marty Di Bergi (Rob Reiner) documents the British heavy metal rock band Spinal Tap and its three lead members (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer) as they embark on a tour of America to promote their new album. The film chronicles the band’s clashing artistic styles, the tour’s frequent cancellations, and the mysterious deaths surrounding several former band members.
Why It Matters: The NFR credits “This Is Spinal Tap” with inspiring the mockumentary genre. I mean, it’s no “David Holzman’s Diary”, but what is?
But Does It Really?: Oh yes. In addition to its influence on mockumentaries (which is still being felt today), “Spinal Tap” is still one of the most consistently funny films ever made. You can tell that everyone involved got the joke, and what you’re seeing is the best of the best improvisations. There’s a love for real heavy metal rock here, which helps balance out the sheer ridiculousness of the band and its antics.
Everybody Gets One: Main band member Michael McKean, as well as pretty much the entire cast, most notably: Ed Begley Jr., Paul Benedict, Dana Carvey, Howard Hesseman, Patrick Macnee, Paul Shaffer, and Fred Willard.
Wow, That’s Dated: Besides the obvious references to the ‘80s heavy metal scene, there are references to cassettes and NBA player Julius “Dr. J” Erving.
Title Track: Jeanine actually does say, “This is Spinal Tap” when introducing the band at the Air Force Base.
Seriously, Oscars?: Critically hailed but commercially ignored on its initial release, “Spinal Tap” failed to receive any Academy Award nominations. In a year that included “Amadeus”, “Places in the Heart” and “The Killing Fields”, no one on the Academy was in the mood to laugh.
- There’s that goddamn Studio Canal logo again. It’s so jarring. Who thought that was a good idea?
- This was Rob Reiner’s first film as a director. Way to hit it out of the park on the first try.
- This film actually fares okay on basic cable. Nothing gets cut; they just bleep out the language, like you would for an actual documentary.
- The songs in this film really don’t get the credit they deserve. Reiner & Guest & McKean & Shearer not only wrote rock songs that sound like the real things, but their pastiches of the band’s early folk incarnations are spot-on as well.
- Keep in mind that at this point in time, Michael McKean was best known for playing Lenny (or possibly Squiggy) on “Laverne & Shirley”. Quite a far cry from this type of comedy.
- Because of this film, I have used “Shit sandwich” as an expletive on multiple occasions.
- It’s fun to look for the shots where they clearly made each other laugh. Most of the time they immediately cut away, but if you look closely you can see everyone (most notably McKean) come close to corpsing on camera.
- What can I say about any of the film’s iconic moments? These go to 11, Stonehenge, getting lost to the stage. It’s all just as funny as it was the first time. I ain’t gonna try to analyze it. It still works.
- Don’t think I didn’t catch that, Harry Shearer using your real voice as the radio announcer.
- That’s future Oscar winner Anjelica Huston in an early film role as Polly Deutsch, the designer who misinterprets the Stonehenge blueprints.
- This film loves wordplay, most notably Sir Denis Eton-Hogg and the Isle of Lucy.
- A lot of the quick cameos in this film are worth noting, but my favorite is Fred Willard. He always excels as the guy who tries a little too hard to be everyone’s pal.
- My hometown of Stockton, California gets a shout-out towards the end of the film. Contrary to how it’s portrayed here, Stockton does not have a “Themeland Amusement Park”. To the best of my knowledge, that’s actually Six Flags Magic Mountain in Santa Clarita.
- I do love a good Joe Besser reference.
- Christopher Guest waited a decade before bringing the “Spinal Tap” team back together for “Waiting for Guffman” and several other acclaimed mockumentaries (although he objects to the term “mocumentary” because he does not believe his films mock anyone).
- Spinal Tap reunited in 1992 to promote their new album “Break Like the Wind”, and again in 2009 with “Back from the Dead”
- Fran Drescher reprised her role of Bobbi Flekman in a 1997 episode of “The Nanny”.
- Many bands have cited “Spinal Tap” as an influence or as hitting too close to home. Metallica released its own Black Album in reference to “Smell the Glove”.
- “Up to 11” has become such a mainstream phrase it has its own Wikipedia page.
- But perhaps the band’s greatest reunion came on “The Simpsons” episode, “The Otto Show”. It helps that one of the regular “Simpsons” cast members is Harry Shearer.
Further Viewing: Spinal Tap’s long running opening act The Folksmen got their own film in 2003. “A Mighty Wind” is the Christopher Guest gang at the peak of their collaborations.