It’s pretty rare that one movie creates a genre, and then promptly ruins that genre for filmmakers to come. You could argue that there have not yet been American gangster or martial arts movies to surpass The Godfather and Enter the Dragon, respectively, but that doesn’t stop a half-dozen people every year from trying. However, the doors pretty much closed on the fake-rock documentary after Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap in 1984. It would be hard for this type of movie to be done any better.
This Is Spinal Tap was written by Reiner and the movie’s three main stars: Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest, and Michael McKean. It purports to be a documentary (whose fake director is played by Reiner) following the fictional British metal band Spinal Tap on tour across the United States. From there, every aspect of rock ‘n’ roll culture is open to attack; Spinal Tap could be seen as a parody of every band from the Beatles to Queen, depending upon the joke at play in the scene. Indeed, urban legends exist that a wide variety of bands and artists have had events in This Is Spinal Tap happen to them for real, from Glenn Danzig to Tom Waits.
There have been other comedies to tread this kind of ground: films like Walk Hard keep the satire but ditch the documentary aspect, while Chris Rock’s CB4 was basically the Tap of rap. However, none of them have had music quite as good as This Is Spinal Tap. The band legitimately rocks, to the point that it’s easy to miss the jokes in the lyrics if you’re not careful. Shearer, McKean, and Guest are all talented musicians – check out their acoustic performance of Tap songs as “Unwigged & Unplugged” – and I definitely got the feeling that the comedy in the music came first, and the off-stage jokes followed.
The lyrics of the songs are terrific because they hit that sweet spot where they are close to existing songs, but add just enough extra ridiculousness. My big problem with CB4 was that the songs were a little too absurd; as hard-core as NWA and other targets of the satire were, none of them ever threatened to have sex with your cat, the way Chris Rock does in the movie’s first song. On the other hand, Tap’s “Gimme Some Money” hits that perfect sweet spot of mocking Mick Jagger, where his easy self-confidence with women turns into lazy mooching off of his girlfriends.
The off-stage comedy is interesting because basically every line in the movie is spoken by a comedy ringer. Billy Crystal is in the film for literally five seconds, acting opposite Dana Carvey as a mime. Crystal’s When Harry Met Sally and City Slickers co-star Bruno Kirby has a memorable cameo as a Frank Sinatra-obsessed limo driver. A pre-David Letterman Paul Schaffer milks a small role as an inept promoter, and you are aware of Fran Drescher’s unmistakeable voice before you realize that she’s in the film. The movie is the first film credit for many of the most successful comic actors alive; Fred Willard in particular turned his role into a career that has lasted nearly 30 years.
With that many funny people on the same set, the movie didn’t need much of a script. The film’s style is mostly ad-libbed, and some the funniest material comes during the outtakes that play over the credits. There were many more outtakes beyond that; past DVD releases have had 70+ minutes of extra scenes and there exists a booteg version of the movie that is over four and a half hours long. Guest would later apply that freeform style to his own movies Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman, and all three of the key members of Tap would get their chances to improvise on Saturday Night Live as cast members.
A thing about Hollywood comedies is that they often demand a moment where “things turn serious.” The plot gets complicated, the music changes, and the hero is forced to make a serious decision, usually in order to win the girl’s heart. But if you look at many of the great comedies – Airplane!, The Blues Brothers, Anchorman – they don’t have that. This is one reason I love Black Dynamite, because it just refuses to take its plot seriously at any point. In that way, the climax of This Is Spinal Tap let me down just a little bit, because it drops the comedy in order to resolve the band’s internal conflicts. If there’s one thing I don’t expect from Tap, it’s for things to turn serious.
It’s not a long letdown, and it’s helped by the way the music shows how the band needs each other in order to rock, but it was a break in the laughs. That break might keep This Is Spinal Tap out of the #1 spot for “funniest movie ever,” but I fully agree with The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly that it’s one of the 100 best movies ever made, and I can’t wait to laugh at it again. What more can you ask from a great comedy?
Reviewed by Mark Young