Few movies cross the line between life and art so easily, or so repeatedly, as This is Spinal Tap. It is the greatest rock and roll movie ever made, the greatest mockumentary ever made, and one of the funniest movies ever made. This faux documentary about a witless and luckless British heavy metal band cuts so close to the bone that rock music legends far and wide—from Ozzy Osbourne to U2 and everyone in between—immediately related to the movie’s goings-on. At one time or another, they have all agreed that many of the things we see in This is Spinal Tap have happened to them in real life, from getting lost in the basements of venues, to band members throwing a fit over the quality of their dressing room snacks, to playing at Air Force bases, and more.
But the movie goes beyond that. Though a modest box office success at first, Spinal Tap became a huge cult hit on video, its legend growing to the point where in 1992, stars Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer—who all composed and played the music in Spinal Tap, by the way—reunited and released a real-world album, Break Like the Wind. (It’s not bad!) Then they released another one, and eventually played at both the Glastonbury Festival and Wembley Stadium. Wembley Stadium! There are thousands of real bands that work their whole lives and still have to buy a ticket to get into that place. It’s like the Stonehenge of rock and roll, a comparison not lost on any Spinal Tap fan, to be sure. But every time Spinal Tap has gone on tour and played to packed houses, it gets harder to say where the fiction of the band stops and its reality starts. But it’s easy to note where it all begins, and it begins with a guy named Marti Di Bergi.
This is Spinal Tap starts with an introduction by filmmaker Di Bergi (played by writer and director Rob Reiner in what is surely his finest hour), who greets the audience with a story about the first time he heard British heavy metal act Spinal Tap, and was blown away by their reckless enthusiasm. From there, he delves into the band’s long and colorful history while accompanying them as they tour in the States to promote their new album, Smell the Glove. We meet bassist Derek Smalls, a guy who plays huge guitars and smuggles even huger produce in his pants. Lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel, a gifted musician who, if he was any stupider, would have to be watered twice a week. And rhythm guitarist and lead singer David St. Hubbins, Nigel’s longtime and marginally less stupid friend, whose interfering girlfriend Jeanine is obviously destroying the band. Keyboardist Viv Savage and drummer Mick Shrimpton round things out, but Shrimpton is literally living on borrowed time, given how often the Tap’s drummers die under unusual circumstances.
The band went through various iterations in the 1950s and 60s before settling on that particular brand of glam metal that came from the UK in the late 70s and early 80s, and traded on hot guitar licks and lyrics that were such transparent sexual innuendos that the only people who thought they were fooling anyone were the blokes who wrote them. Loud, rude, crude, but desperately wanting to be loved, Tap’s U.S. tour is a running catastrophe of mismanagement (thanks in part to their long-suffering and cricket bat-wielding manager, Ian Faith), on-stage fiascos and steadily declining attendance. By the time the tour reaches its end, we wonder—as Ian and Nigel angrily quit and David and Derek lose any sense of direction—if Spinal Tap itself has as well. At their lowest point, you really feel for the guys, because despite their artistic pretention, excessive behavior and lack of self-awareness, all they want to do is entertain people. And deep down, all you want is for them to succeed, even though you know you’ll probably hate yourself if they do.
Where do you seek a moment of truth in a movie that is itself one great, big moment of truth? I could call out individual scenes, but then I’d end up recapping the whole thing. The movie lampoons the rock and roll industry so perfectly that just uttering the band’s name instantly conjures a kind of high-energy fecklessness we see bands that ought to know better, but don’t. If you don’t believe me, go check out a real documentary called Anvil! The Story of Anvil, about a corny Canadian heavy metal band that got rolling around the same time as Spinal Tap, and never quite hit it big, for reasons unbeknownst to them. The reasons are obvious to us in the audience: these guys are every single thing Spinal Tap ever made fun of. The only difference is that Anvil commits the crime of taking themselves seriously, while Spinal Tap never breaks character, but always makes sure that you are in on the joke.
This movie stands out on its own merits as a comedy of singular genius. But it gets extra credit for launching the mockumentary format as well as springboarding McKean, Guest and Shearer on a long career of fantastic, hilarious musical parody. After Spinal Tap, they created a faux folk band called the Folksmen, and in an act of extraordinary recursion, opened for Spinal Tap at Wembley as the Folksmen and got booed by Tap fans who didn’t realize who the Folksmen were. The trio would also make splendid mockumentaries of their own, but none can compete with This is Spinal Tap, because nothing can. It stands supreme in its merciless sarcasm and brilliant wit. There is more truth in this fake documentary than in any ten real ones. This one most definitely goes to 11.