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Frank Sidebottom The Home of the Retrospective


A nostalgic (but not blindly nostalgic) look back at some cult and classic movies. Are they worth checking out once you take off the rose-tinted glasses? Find out in this retrospective section.

This is Spinal Tap (1984) directed by Rob Reiner

What’s it about?

This spoof rockumentary follows the US tour of an ageing British heavy rock band named Spinal Tap, who are promoting their latest album, Smell The Glove.

Director Rob Reiner plays the host Marty DiBergi, who interviews band members David St Hubbins (Michael McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) through a series of gigs and backstage strops, amid their volatile egos and imploding popularity.

Watch a trailer:

Why is it significant?

The parody heavy metal band Spinal Tap started off as a sketch for a failed 1979 TV pilot called The T.V. Show. Despite the failure of the show itself the band’s co-creators Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Rob Reiner evidently felt that there was more mileage in the idea. With New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands such as Iron Maiden and Def Leppard entering music’s mainstream during the early-1980s, the timing seemed right for a full-blown Spinal Tap movie, presented as a kind of “mockumentary” life-on-the-road video diary.

It wasn’t a big commercial hit on its release despite overwhelmingly positive reviews. However, it has won a fervent cult following over the years. Indeed, it can be seen as a testament to how spot-on this send-up came when many members of real-life heavy metal bands (such as Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin and Ozzy Osborne of Black Sabbath) have pointed out how close the seemingly absurd on-screen antics seen here have come to their actual experiences! Some bands have even gone as far as working their own self-effacing homages to Spinal Tap into their work; Metallica had reportedly based the black sleeve of their self-titled “black album” on the similar one featured on the spoof band’s “Smell the Glove” album.

It was the big-screen directorial debut of Rob Reiner and the start of a seven-film “winning streak” of major critical and commercial successes through a variety of genres: The Sure Thing, Stand by Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery and A Few Good Men.

The film had its own tie-in soundtrack album which was also called This is Spinal Tap and was credited to the fictional band themselves. A follow-up album of new material called Break Like the Wind was released in 1992. However, the general consensus amongst music critics was that the joke had worn thin by this point.

How does it hold up?

During the 1970s and 80s, the heavy rock music scene (in particular, the heavy metal and prog rock sub-genres) tended towards a sense of overblown pomposity, musical self-indulgence and the same endlessly regurgitated sexist and new age cliches. This Is Spinal Tap skewers this absolutely perfectly.

The main reasons why it works so well are, firstly, that it’s played with a straight face and, secondly, that the jokes hit very close to the reality of a scene which had long sunk into absurdity. There’s a “slow-mo car accident” quality to the whole thing that hits the funny bone far harder than most comedies do.

Christopher Guest in This is Spinal Tap

The band members (in common with many of these bands in real life) are so arrogant and self-absorbed that they can’t see that they have been left in a state of arrested development with a lot of frankly ridiculous musical material. Take the song Big Bottom, for instance: it’s a daft, innuendo-laden depiction of women as objects for sexual gratification. Ironically, however, numerous heavy rock bands like Poison and Motley Crue were still churning out exactly this sort of stuff for several years after this film was released.

The gaudy, dysfunctional stage props - pods that the band are supposed to emerge from at the start of one song that fail to open, replicas of Stonehenge columns accidentally made to a tiny size - reflect the overblown hubris of prog rock artists such as Rick Wakeman, who notoriously tried to stage a musical ode to King Arthur on ice. There’s little that’s funnier than watching a turgidly over-serious song about ancient Druids dancing at Stonehenge being deflated by a couple of dwarves jigging around an 18-inch high model!

In between the shows - at least, what shows that aren’t cancelled due to the band’s appeal becoming “more selective”, as their manager Ian Faith (Tony Hendra) politely puts - there are plenty of creative disagreements and prima donna style strops. These tend to be between lead vocalist David and lead guitarist Nigel, again reflecting real-life rock bands where these two roles tend to vie for attention. Bassist Derek is the quietly unassuming one who is squeezed out by these two giant egos - in his own words: “They’re two distinct types of visionaries, it’s like fire and ice, basically. I feel my role in the band is to be somewhere in the middle of that, kind of like lukewarm water.”

When the members of this peas-in-the-pod duo aren’t falling out with each other they are whinging at manager Ian about incredibly petty issues with the dressing room food or any one of a number of other things. Ian clearly sees himself as being a more mature figure than the band members and yet, lacking the musical talent and the free time to live the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, seems all too keen to copy their arrogant and sexist attitudes.

The band’s disintegrating popularity becomes more evident in the later scenes, with them being reduced to playing an aunties’ evening at a US Air Force hanger or suffering the indignity of second billing at a Punch & Judy show. However, they still remain in denial of the fact that they have slipped into irrelevance. Like the rest of the film it’s hilarious, but brings in a tincture of sadness that deepens the joke and stops it running out of steam. Despite their myriad faults, there is a genuine affection for the characters that just about any viewer, whether they (like myself) love rock, or they hate it, can readily latch onto.

Runtime: 82 mins

Dir: Rob Reiner

Script: Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Rob Reiner

Starring: Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Rob Reiner, Tony Hendra, Bruno Kirby, Patrick Macnee, June Chadwick, Anjelica Huston

Rating: 11 out of 10!

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