Lockdown Cinema #8 – This is Spinal Tap! (1984)

Reel DMC
Reel DMC
Lockdown Cinema #8 – This is Spinal Tap! (1984)
These guys go to 11….

The eight in an ongoing series of film conversations where I track my daughter’s reaction after she’s been introduced to one of my favorite movies.

What’s the movie about?

An investigate journalist begins shadowing “one of England’s loudest bands” to try and solve the mystery of an ongoing series of percussionist deaths. 

Why did I pull this particular movie out of the cabinet?

This was a test, of the emergency 80’s comedy system, this was only a test.  I was honestly super curious to see if any of this would translate into something my daughter would enjoy.  She doesn’t really have a frame of reference for classic rock, annoying band antics, and I have no idea if she’s ever seen a mockumentary.

What did I think of the movie upon revisiting it?

It’s consistently fun, but not laugh out loud funny – I think the legend of the movie actually gets in the way of the film itself.  People not familiar with Spinal Tap (or Christopher Guest in general) are probably expecting this to be a laugh riot all the way through.  However, it’s the fantastically realistic portrayal of a rock band and the authenticity makes it something special.

Why do I like it?

Because a group of comedians set out to make a movie skewering the music industry and prima donna musicians……and accidentally created an actual band.  Don’t believe me?  Well here’s the album Spinal Tap Put out in 1992 – eight years after the film’s release:

The songs in the film and those they’ve subsequently created are legit – they’re certainly as good or better than a bunch of bands out there.  They’ve also toured on several occasions and showed up at different festival shows and benefits – and they play those events totally straight for the most part – they are Spinal Tap.  They’re sort of like the heavy metal version of The Monkees, only based on their song titles, instead of hoping you take The Last Train to Clarksville, they’d rather you visit the Sex Farm.  Their songs and lyrics are simultaneously impressive and goofy; the titles casually poke fun at all the standard heavy metal tropes, a particular favorite being Tonight I’m going to Rock you Tonight.

 The film is anchored by three fantastic (and incredibly believable) performances.  Michael McKean plays lead singer David St. Hubbins – he’s probably the most normal of the group, but he’s ultimately responsible for the break-up of the band due to insisting his girlfriend take over as manager – makes you wonder if Yoko Ono enjoys this film. 

Christopher Guest plays guitarist Nigel Tufnel as amiable but clueless.  There’s a fun scene with Nigel struggling to eat the contents of a charcutier board due to being unable to manage the small pieces of bread – it’s the Spinal Tap equivalent to Van Halen’s request to have the brown M&Ms removed from their dressing room bowls.  Nigel is responsible for the movie’s signature moment when he shows Marty Diberg that their amps go to 11 because “it’s one louder.”

A legend is born

Harry Shearer plays the laconic Derek Smalls, when he’s not on stage, he’s pretty much just along for the ride.  He tries to stay out of band arguments and watches with a casual detachment, and his casual delivery of off-beat lines makes him extremely likable.

The stagecraft and location jokes in this film are great – there’s a scene where the three band members are supposed to emerge from chrysalises only to see Derek’s get stuck – he plays most of the song trapped inside as roadies try everything (including a blowtorch) to get it open.  And during an epic homage to Stonehenge, the band watches in horror as a small eighteen inch statue is lowered down from the ceiling – because the initial drawing was made on a cocktail napkin and nobody clarified the dimensions.

You watch as the band slowly falls apart, and you know things are getting desperate when they get to the site of what could be their final gig:

What’s great about this moment is the small argument they have about the order of the names on the sign – “It was supposed to be Spinal Tap and puppets, not Puppets and Spinal Tap.”

Upon rewatch, what didn’t work for me?

It holds up surprisingly well, there was nothing glaring which jumped out at me.  A lot of the style is extremely cheesy, and the dialogue is all over the place, but that’s kind of the point.

Anything else I’d like to add?

It’s fun to go online and read how real musicians reacted to the film – many saying things along the lines of “that’s US!” or “wow, that’s my band.”  Sting has been quoted as saying, “I didn’t know whether I should laugh or cry,” since he felt it was such a dead-on impression of life inside a band.

This is Rob Reiner’s first film, which he then follows with The Sure Thing (1985), Stand By Me (1986), The Princess Bride (1987), When Harry Met Sally (1989), Misery (1990), and A Few Good Men (1992).  That’s an insanely good run of introductory film-making – it has to be among the hottest starts of any director in modern history.

This is the only film on the Internet Movie Database which can be rated above a 10….naturally to an 11, because it’s one better.

Am I still happy I chose this to share with my daughter?

I am. It satisfied my curiosity, and I wasn’t particularly surprised by the outcome.

  So, what did she think?  Check out the podcast to find out!

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