DiBergi, whose previous credits included directing several well-received Chuck Wagon Dog Food commercials, filmed the almost famous, hard rocking Brit band during their first U.S. tour in six years. The result of the young auteur's vision is a documentary that is shocking, scandalous, and hilarious. It's also a complete work of fiction.
Fiction, huh? Shades of Jayson Blair? Not at all. THIS IS SPINAL TAP was actually Rob Reiner's directorial debut and the film responsible for introducing the "mockumentary" (or mock documentary) to mainstream American audiences.
"There's such a fine line between clever and stupid"
The movie, presented much like the typical concert film, combined concert footage with interviews and candid glimpses into the lives of band members, their lackies, and assorted hangers-on both backstage and on the road. Unlike U2's RATTLE AND HUM, the Talking Heads' STOP MAKING SENSE, or Madonna's TRUTH OR DARE, which captured the artists at their professional peak, SPINAL TAP instead offered a rare glimpse at a second-rate heavy metal band made up of aging musicians as they desperately cling onto what little fame they used to have. To quote Frank Zappa: "It's all about a bunch of old farts playin' rock and roll, man."
So after twenty years, how did this modest, little parody 'cult' film become such an enduring classic? (It is, after all, on the American Film Institute's 100 Greatest Comedy list-under the category: Motherfucking Masterpieces, natch). How can a movie that gives voice to a motley crew of fading, fictional headbangers be so sublimely silly and so sweetly spot on at the same time? And more importantly, how can any flick that no doubt inspired thousands of insipid VH1: BEHIND THE MUSIC episodes AND unleashed the horror of an ageless Fran Drescher to an unsuspecting world remain so light and satisfying after all these years?
"Money talks and bullshit walks"
Is it a mystery more baffling than Stonehenge? Nah, not really. It's just the inspired, mad genius of the trio of improvisational comedians who conceived it: Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer, who, respectively, played bandmates Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins, and Derek Smalls, managed to stripmine every element of the mythology that surrounded not only our beloved bands but of good ol' rock-n-roll itself.
The movie was filmed without a working script; only the bare bones of the scene were mapped out in advance and the actors improvised almost all of their dialogue. The actors dug deeply into every dusty corner of rock lore, riffing on everything from out-of-control groupies and fanatical managers to the music world's deep, dark secret: Hey, didn't you know? One drummer is just as good as the next.
"You can't really dust for vomit"
It might be noted that Spinal Tap had an unusually bad run of luck with its drummers. The first dies in a tragic, freak gardening mishap...it involved tumbling groin-first into a misplaced trowel. Well, let's just say, some mysteries are best left unsolved, so---um, don't ask.
His replacement was a victim of spontaneous combustion: "Dozens of people spontaneously combust every year. It's just not widely reported."
The next one dies from choking on vomit...not his own, so---um, don't ask. The final drummer either went missing or even more disturbingly, went into jazz...um.
"It's a complete catastrophe!"
The on-stage antics of Spinal Tap were hilariously over the top as all good cock rock should be. It's here where bassist Derek, lead singer David, and lead guitarist Nigel inflicted their greatest damage.
They manage to trample mercilessly on every heavy metal cliche imaginable: the goony-scary facial contortions that must accompany every megapower guitar solo...the splayed legs vacuumed packed into checkered spandex pants, offering a nice reveal of one's, uh, 'power source'...the giant, malfunctioning transparent pod stage props. Yup, it's all here, folks. With the exception of that pod thing, this is all of the stuff that we've grown to love and expect from our jukebox heroes.
The actors have so perfectly captured 'metal' machismo that they come across not as mere parodists but just like the real thing. C'mon, if you're gonna be singing songs like "Sex Farm," "Hellhole," and "Big Bottom" ("Talk about mudflaps, my girl's got 'em.") you better be able to sell it, man.
Make no mistake about it. As a rock-n-roll satire, THIS IS SPINAL TAP is one motherfucking masterpiece. But behind the laughs, it's also a very touching rock-n-roll parable. In a quiet scene in an otherwise raucous movie, Nigel and David recounts for an interviewer the first ime they met and sing the first song they wrote together. For a brief moment, as the two harmonize a half forgotten tune, we realize that there is an inexplicable and deeply rooted love of music that brings all musicians, good ones and bad ones, real ones and imaginary ones, together in the first place.
"I told them a hundred times: put Spinal Tap first and puppet show last!"
Later, there's a scene where the band gathers around a radio, listening to one of their old tunes. When the song ends, the DJ says: "That was the band Spinal Tap...they had a couple of hits and currently reside in the 'Where Are They Now' file." At that moment, one isn't struck by the group's many, many failings but rather one marvels at their perseverance. Fame may be fleeting yet the band plays on.
Which is a pretty heady message for some little 'cult' comedy.
"Wot? Go up to eleven?"
Everyone who loves SPINAL TAP has a story about how many times they've seen it or how stoned they were the last time they saw it. Many can quote from the movie verbatim. I am not quite a "Tap Head" but I do try to catch it every five years or so. And each time I see it, it immediately takes me back to the very first time.
In 1984, I was a high school freshman. "THIS IS SPINAL TAP" was a revelation to me. It struck a chord to very geekdom. You see, there was always this chasm in my school: there were the goon jocks on one side, rock geeks on the other. The only famous athletes I knew back in the eighties were the ones who wore cutesy Christmas sweaters and toupees and wound up marrying Kathie Lee. Whereas Sting was out buying Italian villas and exploring Tantric sex. In my horny 14-year-old mind, the choice was abundantly clear: I wanna be a rock star!
"What a wanker!"
Now comes the most devastating confession I've ever made: I actually went to a Halloween party dressed as David St. Hubbins. Complete with required eighties-era shag hairdo, eighties-era spandex, and yes, with a tin-foiled, zucchini-enhancing "power source."
As was noted quite memorably in the movie, you just cannot substitute a zucchini with a cucumber. Why? Cuz a cucumber is way too pimply. Makes sense to me. I know it was wrong but, hey, everyone needs a little trouser helper every once in a while. What's wrong with being sexy?
How did I do at said party, you ask? By nature, I'm a modest sort. But God Bless You, David St. Hubbins! God Bless You, Nigel Tufnel! God Bless You, Derek Smalls! God Bless You, Spinal Tap! And Hello Cleveland!