THIS IS SPINAL TAP: NO NEED FOR PAINKILLERS
BY DEVON DONOHUE
Creative masterminds Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Rob Reiner blur and demolish the distinction between fiction and reality in the 1984 “mockumentary” This is Spinal Tap. A scathing but witty parody of its contemporary music industry and rock stereotypes, this film foreshadowed the current rock situation. The trend for old bands to reform and tour in an attempt to capture nostalgia from our open wallets is relatively new. With the movie’s re-release (the film equivalent of a reunification tour), the current generation of movie and concert- goers can experience the exaggerated and hilarious behind-the-scenes perspective of a washed-up band.
Director Rob Reiner, known for such films as The Princess Bride, A Few Good Men, When Harry Met Sally, and Stand By Me, plays intrusive documentary director Marty DiBergi in a takeoff of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz documentary about The Band. He sets out to capture the “sights and smells” of British band, Spinal Tap, during the American tour for their new album, Smell the Glove. What follows is a colorful whirlwind of interviews, concert clips, backstage footage, and band meetings-- all of which successfully rely on actor improvisation.
Lead guitarists David St. Hubbins (McKean) and Nigel Tufnel (Guest) convincingly project the arrogant confidence and narcissism of seasoned rock stars. When the food in the dressing room isn’t up to Nigel’s expectations, he complains like a spoiled ten-year-old. Bass player Derek Smalls (Shearer) balances them with his Zen-like outlook. In an interview with DiBergi, he says, “We’re lucky in a sense that we’ve got two visionaries in the band, you know, David and Nigel are… like fire and ice. Basically, you see, and I feel my role is to be kind of in the middle of that, kind of like lukewarm water in a sense.”
David (McKean), Derek (Shearer), and Nigel (Guest)
The rock band formula cries out for a meddling girlfriend, harried band manager, and record label representatives; This Is Spinal Tap provides all of the above with the “could this be real?” exaggerated realism that makes the movie so funny. June Chadwick is sufficiently power-hungry and egoistic as David’s cosmic, high-maintenance girlfriend Jeanine Pettibone, while Tony Hendra exudes a believably thinning patience as neurotic manager Ian Faith. Appearances by Fran Drescher and Paul Shaffer are dead-on as business-like Polymer Record rep Bobbi Fleckman and overwhelmed Midwest promoter Artie Fufkin. In response to a poorly attended album signing, Artie takes full responsibility for the event’s failure: “I’m not asking you, I’m telling you to kick my ass!”
These figures move beyond mere caricature by means of facial expression. The earliest moments of tension between Nigel and Jeanine come from reaction shots at the mention of the other’s name. As they interact throughout the film, this tension develops by crosscutting between each other’s reaction. Instead of using typical conversational camera angles that suture the viewer into conversation, Reiner lingers on Nigel’s gum-chomping deadpan or Jeanine’s haughty glare. When Jeanine passes around costume sketches of each band member based on their astrological sign (the one of Nigel, a Capricorn, looks like a goat spawn of Satan), Nigel does little to conceal the expression of annoyed disbelief in his eyes.
Shearer has a knack for the mock serious expression. When the boys sing a private tribute to Elvis at his grave in Graceland, one can sense in his eyes that he’s spent some time at the “Heartbreak Hotel.” As David and Nigel quarrel about the harmony sounding “barbershop-raga,” Derek admonishes them to respect the King by means of a slight but effective frown.
While David’s angry faces are on the whole unconvincing, as in his reaction to a surprisingly small piece of scenery during the larger-than-life Stonehenge production, he effectively communicates other emotions and his real thoughts beyond what he says. Nigel’s resentment against Jeanine, now replacement manager (because her ambitions caused a frustrated Ian to leave), builds up to his passionate decision to quit the band. When Nigel returns at the end of the tour with news from Ian, David’s downtrodden eyes bring out the depth of their friendship, even while his persona remains cold. Instead of creating cardboard characters, each actor brings a touch of humanity and realism to his or her part. This is another way in which the film distorts (pun intended) the boundary between real and reel.
The funniest scenes are those that progress from plausibility to a test of audience gullibility. In an interview with DiBergi, Nigel claims that his guitar solos are his trademark. The scene cuts to one, which builds in ridiculousness. He begins shirtless and sweaty with a high and fast musical progression, a style made popular by Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. He proceeds further by strumming another guitar with his foot. In an allusion to Page playing with a violin bow, Nigel ups the stakes by using a violin as an oversized guitar pick. He gets that “push over the cliff” (a reference to his favorite amp) when he tunes a string on the violin.
The film does not always succeed in maintaining its documentary guise. While there are occasional references to the film crew and process of filming, there are other scenes in which the camera knows too well where it should be. When the group gets lost on the way to the stage at the Xanadu Star Theater in Chicago (and Derek mistakenly yells “Hello Cleveland!” in attempt to pump up his fellow musicians), the camera uses techniques of narrative filmmaking. Instead of following the band the whole time, as a documentary film would, the camera shows them both coming and going. If the camera operators were lost along with the band, they wouldn’t know where to position themselves in order to catch the front view. But part of the aim of the film is to see how far the viewer is willing to suspend belief; this could just be another test for the audience.
The film’s greatest success lies in the music itself. All lyrics and music were written and performed by the actors and director, further blurring the line between fiction and reality. They take formulaic rock themes and breathe fresh life into them in a sort of lyrical CPR. Text like “Big bottom, big bottom / Talkin’ ‘bout bum cakes, my girl’s got ‘em. / Big bottom drive me out of my mind / How can I leave this behind?” have a winking quality to them, as if there were a grain of sand stuck in your eye. The music for Big Bottom matches the tone of the text with heavy riffs and a slow tempo, creating a humorous impression of a large woman-perhaps the fat lady with pigtails and horned helmet who signals the end of the opera. The genius of such lyrics and music lies in the mockery, yet adherence to rock convention. From the early Beatles sound of Gimme Some Money to the psychedelic (Listen to the) Flower People; from the Jethro Tull-inspired progressive rock feel of Stonehenge to the metal influenced Hell Hole, the music emulates bands like Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, The Kinks, and Black Sabbath with humor and accuracy.
This is Spinal Tap leaves the viewer wondering if the boys from Squatney, England, could have made it as a real rock band. In a way, they did. After the movie, they toured several times and released an album in 1992: Breaks Like the Wind. The phenomenon known as Spinal Tap thrives on the ambiguity between reality and art. If they ever toured again, I would open my wallet to see them. For now, I must settle for their “documentary.”