"This Is Spinal Tap" Is The Funniest Movie Ever Made
The late, great film critic Roger Ebert called This Is Spinal Tap "one of the funniest movies ever made." This clearly is an understatement and I can only guess at why he chose to hedge his bets. I've watched this hilarious rockumentary satire more than a dozen times over the years and I'm pretty sure it's THE funniest movie ever made.
2014 marked the 30th anniversary of This Is Spinal Tap, which still enjoys a huge cult following three decades after it was released. Read on to find out the reasons for its ongoing popularity.
A Mockumentary of a Rockumentary
The concept of This Is Spinal Tap is a joke in itself. It's a mock documentary AKA "mockumentary" of the making of a rock dockumentary AKA "rockumentary" about a band on what is supposed to be their comeback tour.
The Director and Co-Star
The movie marked Rob Reiner's directorial debut. Of course, he went on to direct many of other blockbuster comedies including The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally. In This Is Spinal Tap Reiner plays filmmaker Marty DiBergi, a huge fan of over-the-hill British heavy metal rock band Spinal Tap. DiBergi gets the band's permission to make a rockumentary film that will give other equally avid fans a behind-the-scenes look at the band's upcoming US tour to promote its new album, "Smell the Glove".
The Band Members
The lead singers and songwriters of the Spinal Tap band, Nigel Tufnel and David St. Hubbins, were played by Christopher Guest and Michael McKean, respectively. Guest had been a writer and performer on the iconic television show Saturday Night Live in the 1970s. McKean was best known at the time for having played Lenny on the TV sitcom Laverne & Shirley and later joined the cast of Saturday Night Live and went on to star in many film and television roles. The band's bassist, Derek Smalls, was played by Harry Shearer, who also wrote and performed on SNL for many years and subsequently gained even greater fame (and his first Primetime Emmy Award) voicing many of the characters on the blockbuster TV series, The Simpsons.
You Don't Have to Love Hard Rock or Heavy Metal to Find This Movie Hilarious
I never understood the appeal of those hard-partying rock and heavy metal bands of the 1970s and 80s who were better known for their big hair, adolescent pranks and "sex, drugs, and rock and roll" lifestyles than for their often mediocre musical abilities, but they had millions of screaming fans who fed their already over-inflated egos. So it's ironic that This Is Spinal Tap, a movie about just such outlandish, , was what got me laughing again during a very sad and difficult time in my life.
The larger-than-life, cartoon-like personas of these "legends in their own minds" made an irresistible target for Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, who had clearly had a blast lampooning them by creating a fictitious "big hair" heavy metal band complete with the requisite juvenile humor, raunchy lyrics and questionable intelligence. The co-writers of This Is Spinal Tap had an obvious affection for the clueless band members's foibles that makes these characters as lovable as they are laughable.
If you are a heavy metal fan, you'll find the satire even funnier. My husband is 10 years my junior and, unlike me, he is a big fan of heavy metal music and was into the scene in the 1970s and 80s. Ever since he explained many of the parallels between the band in the film, Spinal Tap, and bands like Saxon, Venom and Whitesnake I laugh even harder when I watch this movie.
Tufnel and St. Hubbins: One of the Great Rock Singer/Songwriter Partnerships?
Nigel Tufnel and David St. Hubbins view themselves as a gifted musical partnership on the order of John Lennon / Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger / Keith Richards. Nigel and David have an intense, emotional and often contentious relationship that is likely modeled after that of Jagger/Richards or Lennon/McCartney. Derek, the short-statured bassist with huge mutton-chop sideburns, is much more even tempered than his two band mates and is usually happy to go along with whatever Nigel and David decide.
Derek buys into the pair's delusions of grandeur, seeing them as "poets, like Shelley and Byron...two distinct visionaries...like fire and ice." You have to hear the pathetically puerile "poetry" in their blatantly sexual lyrics designed mostly for shock value to understand just how hilariously ludicrous that statement is. To give him credit, Derek does seem to have a clear grasp of his own role in relation to Nigel and David, i.e., "to be somewhere in the middle of that, kind of like lukewarm water."
The Comeback Tour That Wasn't
For some reason the band Spinal Tap has managed to enjoy near-legendary success for much of their 17 years together and are completely clueless that their glory days are far behind them.
They are baffled and outraged when their return to the US after a six-year absence goes practically unnoticed. It certainly doesn't help that the extremely degrading and sexist album cover turns out to be too offensive for American chain stores and is re-done as a pure black cover. Just black — no band name or logo, not even a title. The inevitable lack of sales (or even awareness of the new album) is a major factor in the cancellation of most of the major venues that had been booked for the tour, and even performances that are moved to small, insignificant venues don't produce ticket sales, The guys have spent their entire careers spoiled, cosseted, indulged and protected from that pesky inconvenience, reality. They're totally unprepared for their lukewarm welcome and immediately look for scapegoats, since obviously the problem couldn't possibly be that they and their music have become irrelevant "oldies".
Long-suffering manager Ian Faith (Tony Hendra) has his hands full trying to keep the boys' temper tantrums and inane antics in check. Poor Ian carries around a large, wooden cricket bat so he can let off steam by smashing things like television sets when things get really bad, which they do often. In fact, things go from very bad to much, much worse when David's girlfriend Jeanine Pettibone, an astrology and yoga enthusiast, flies over from England to join the band. She starts playing tambourine (just what every heavy metal band needs — not!) and taking on the role of David's spiritual and musical adviser in a brutally funny parody of Yoko Ono. Jeanine also insists on pushing her "creative direction" on the band and tries to undermine Ian's authority, causing enormous stress between Nigel and David.
The Stonehenge Debacle: The Beginning of the End?
When Nigel sketches an enormous Stonehenge megalith he wants built as a prop for their stage show and jots down the height dimension as 18" instead of 18', and Ian fails to notice it before giving the sketch to the designer who will build it. When the band members see the diminutive Stonehenge prop for the first time onstage during a live show, they are furious at having been made laughingstocks in front of their fans and they take it out on poor, long-suffering Ian. Ian can't take it any longer and resigns in anger, telling them that he has had it "up to here" with Jeanine's unwanted and manipulative interference and the band's lack of gratitude for all his years of hard work and cleaning up the messes they create. Jeanine, whose fundamental lack of musical or business knowledge is glaringly apparent to everyone except David, finally has her chance to step into Ian's shoes with even more disastrous results. It's the final straw that causes an irreparable rift between David and Nigel, who leaves the band.
During the last show of the tour, Nigel shows up to give David a message from Ian that one of the band's songs is a huge hit in Japan and that he'd like to arrange a Japanese tour for them. David seems unenthusiastic but then calls Nigel up on stage to play with the band and hires Ian back as manager. As the movie ends, Spinal Tap is performing to screaming Japanese crowds in sold-out arenas.
Who's your favorite character from This Is Spinal Tap?
The Famous Custom Amplifiers That Go Up to 11
One of my favorite scenes in the movie, which also happens to be one of the most famous, is when Nigel explains to Marty about how the group managed to become The World's Loudest Band by using custom amplifiers with volume controls that go from 1 to 11 (instead of 1 to 10 like other amps).
Marty is understandably confused about how adding an "11" setting to the volume dial makes the amplifiers any louder. Nigel explains, "Well, it's one louder, isn't it? It's not ten." When Marty asks why they didn't just make the 10 volume setting on the amp louder instead of adding another setting, Nigel is temporarily speechless and finally reiterates, "These go to eleven."
What's In a Name?
Another of my favorite scenes also is between Marty and Nigel. Marty finds Nigel at a piano playing a beautiful, soft, melodic, classical composition and asks him about it. Nigel explains that his music is heavily influenced by Mozart and Bach and that the piece he's playing is somewhere in between the two (“like a ‘Mach’ piece, really”). After a bit more back-and-forth Marty asks him the name of the piece. Nigel replies matter-of-factly that "this piece is called 'Lick my Love Pump'." Christopher Guest's casual delivery of this hilarious punch line is absolutely perfect.
Speaking of names, when Marty asks David about his unusual last name he explains that his family was named after Saint Hubbins, an equally unusual and not well known saint. When Marty asks whether Saint Hubbins actually existed, David explains that he was "the patron saint of quality footwear".
The Priceless Gift of Laughter
If for some reason you're still on the fence about whether to buy the DVD of this movie, consider this:
- This Is Spinal Tap ranks #1 on Entertainment Weekly's "Top 50 Cult Films".
- It is listed in the 1999 book Entertainment Weekly's 100 Greatest Movies of All Time.
- It is one of only 25 films selected In 2002 for the National Film Preservation Board registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important."
What else can you buy for less than $10 that will bring your gift recipient this much fun and enjoyment?
© 2013 Margaret Schindel