Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

50 years, 50 films: This is Spinal Tap (1984)

In our movement through the last half-century of cinema we meet one of the funniest pictures ever made.

Sat, Nov 2, 2013, 19:52


Good grief. Time really does move on. Does it not? This is Spinal Tap concerns a heavy metal band that have passed through superstardom and are now (it’s so hard to avoid direct quotes) “residing in the where-are-they-now? file”. The shots of their early days growing up in Squatney seemed, in 1984, like crafty recreations of an ancient era. These guys were dinosaurs. Looking back, however, we now realise that the members of Spinal Tap were probably only in their early forties. (Let’s use the members of, say, Deep Purple as a model.) The band had been around for just 20 years or so. In an era that saw the near-septuagenarian Rolling Stones headline Glastonbury, Tap now look like mere striplings. The end of the film finds the band being rediscovered in Japan. If they managed to stay alive, that resurgence would probably have continued and they would have ended up making new fortunes on the “heritage tour”. I imagine them playing all of “The Gospel According to Spinal Tap” to an audience full of damp-eyed grandfathers.

YouTube Preview Image

The only sort of people allowed to not like Spinal Tap are those who have never had any exposure to the absurdities of hard rock. If you don’t know what it’s about then you won’t know what it’s about. Everybody else is require to like the thing. It shouldn’t need to be said that the comedy is half in love with that music. You can’t write numbers as accurate (and catchy) as Sex Farm Woman without understanding the dynamics of the genre. The metal community (as we must now call it) seemed to understand this and Spinal Tap became the most watched movie on tour buses for years to come. Among the few people who didn’t get the joke was, surprisingly, the usually good-natured Martin Scorsese. The model for Rob Reiner’s Marty Dibergi — amusingly pompous documentary maker — has never found the film all that funny. You certainly can see hints of Martin’s demeanour in The Last Waltz. But I’d view it as something of a tribute.

Not an enormous success on release, the picture has gone on to become hugely influential. There were mock-documentaries before Spinal Tap. But none of them so gorgeously and rigorously replicated the grammar of the chosen form. In the aftermath, the mock-doc eventually managed to evolve into its own genre. Christopher Guest, star of Tap, used much of that film’s company in lovingly created — if slightly overrated — pastiches such as Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman and A Mighty Wind (though not, despite often being wrongly identified as such, For Your Consideration). The Office aped the form. So did Bob Roberts. Found-footage horror films offer a variation.

It involves little sticking out of necks to argue that no subsequent mock-documentary manages the relentless barrage of comic gems that swell Spinal Tap. Such is its influence that the word “rockumentary” is now often used about music pictures without any sense of parody. The phrase “these go up to 11″ is now an indelible part of the language. There is great improvisation at work and great character creation. We all celebrate Mike McKean, Harry Shearer and Christopher Guest. A special shout should, however, go out to June Chadwick who was so good as proto-Yoko Jeanine. One of my favourite small moments is the look on her face — “daggers” doesn’t cover it — when David St Hubbins suggests that she and Nigel Tufnel are “so alike”. Sadly, after a few appearances on 80′s TV, June does appear to now be residing in the were-are-they-now? file. What a shame.

Other films considered for 1984 included The Terminator, Stranger than Paradise, The Hit and Another Country.