This is Spinal Tap is hilarious to everyone who’s not a musician. Because as ridiculous and perverse as Rob Reiner’s heavy metal mockumentary gets, the slim, 82-minute comedy gnaws at more truths than any other rock ‘n’ roll biopic put to celluloid.
Following the titular English outfit through their crushing lows offers a scathing portrait of both the music industry and the familiar pitfalls of any outfit trying to make it in the proverbial hellhole, pun intended. And 35 years later, it still works.
Much of that has to do with the story at hand. There’s a pathos to singer-guitarist David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer), one that’s free from all the trappings of history.
But that’s the thing, they are history. They’re ludicrous caricatures of the genre’s greatest myths, and if you know your rock ‘n’ roll, a clown like Nigel will look just as familiar to you as, say, Jimmy Page or Brian May. They’re all “truths” passed around the amps.
So much has been written about how Reiner’s film — it should be noted he wrote the screenplay with the three leads — managed to bottle up the excessive and gluttonous evils of glam rock and hair metal. Yet very few ever champion its timelessness.
If anything, Spinal Tap has never been more relevant. At a time when biopics like Bohemian Rhapsody, an absurdist (if not affronting) retcon of history, is actually winning awards, you can only appreciate the power of Reiner’s comedy even more.
There’s more grit to a single scene if Spinal Tap than the entirety of Bryan Singer’s fake news drama. In fact, watching the two back-to-back now, you’d almost think the Oscar-winner has its tongue poking a hole through its cheek over the goddamn comedy.
The issue goes back to history. No matter how visceral or honest a rock biopic appears to be, there’s always going to be that ceremony lingering underneath, one that has every filmmaker, writer, or actor pulling back their punches. Out of respect.
Spinal Tap never had to contend with that, and it’s made the film all the better. This is a movie that bites its thumb at the Beatles for Christ’s sake, a band so beloved they’ve essentially become a religion to rock historians. Reiner and co. didn’t care.
But they didn’t have to, and that’s why anything and everything is game. Watching Derek Smalls yank an aluminum-foil-wrapped cucumber out of his crotch or wincing at David and Nigel’s herpes sores says everything about the attitude of this film.
In fact, you could even ascribe the vicious commentary of Spinal Tap to the entire entertainment industry, which makes the film all the more hard-hitting, especially now at a time when our celebrity worship has managed to poison capital hill.
Because what this movie says about celebrity is that it’s fraudulent. It was never there. It’s all a game. It’s all pyrotechnics. It’s all gimmickry. And if those tricks stop working, as they certainly do for the group, then it’s a nasty, ghastly affair.
That’s likely why it doesn’t sit too well with those in the business. “I didn’t laugh, I wept,” The Edge once said of it. “The first time Steven [Tyler] saw it he didn’t see any humor in it,” Aerosmith’s Bradley Whitford once confessed. Well, no shit.
Seeing the band play embarrassing gigs on naval air strips or discovering they’ve been relegated to a single hotel room was probably a nightmare for the legends who were at the watermark — or the receding hairline — of their careers back in 1984.
It was a revelation that said, “Here’s tomorrow,” and that warning has become a reality for so many outfits today. For the entire genre! How many tours do we report on day in and day out that would have been spit on and shit on 10, 20, 30 years ago?
Spinal Tap knew where the genre was going at a time when the genre was at its most lucrative. And really, that 20/20 foresight hasn’t been lost on its creators, who have since gone on to not only own the mockumentary medium but several other industries.
Yet even without all of that context, Spinal Tap is just a sharp-as-nails movie. Again, it’s as thin as the shaggy-haired rockers, and Reiner never allows any fat to sag over any moment, which is why any scene could be one of those “official YouTube movie clips.”
It also helps that Guest, McKean, and Shearer are damn fine musicians. After all, the soundtrack is just as iconic as the film, and save for its lyrical comedy candy, the songs are just as hard-hitting as anything of that time. “Stonehenge”? Case closed.
“(McKean) and I had been playing music for 20 years,” Guest told the Chicago Tribune back in 2014 for its 30th anniversary. “And we liked doing characters. We were gonna write this, and then we figured we couldn’t write it … so we just started shooting it.”
Whether or not they were truly shooting from the hip as Guest explained can be debated, but they clearly hit their targets. Decades later, This Is Spinal Tap remains unparalleled, even over recent favorites such as Walk Hard or Popstar. It’s just in another league.
To paraphrase the movie, “This pretentious ponderous collection of religious rock psalms is enough to prompt the question, ‘What day did the Lord create Spinal Tap, and couldn’t the rock ‘n’ roll biopic have rested on that day too?’” Amen.