Z To A: This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

Plot Synopsis: Whether or not you’re a die-hard fan of the group, you’ll love this detailed “rockumentary” of England’s legendary Spinal Tap. Acclaimed commercial director, Marty DiBergi, takes you behind-the-scenes for an intimate look at a band whose time has come… and gone… and come again.. and…

– From DVD Production Notes

This Is Spinal Tap was a Christmas present (of course, I credit my mother for her good taste). It was a well-chosen gift because it is probably one of the best loved comedies of all time. I’ve never met someone who doesn’t like it. That’s mostly because there is no shame in liking it. The film is smart, original, critically praised and has a hipness and credibility you wouldn’t get with say… Tommy Boy (1995).

It’s also a touchstone in two careers. Tap was Rob Reiner’s directorial debut and a great start. Reiner went on to make some very successful films and cult classics- Stand By Me (1986), The Princess Bride (1987), When Harry Met Sally… (1989), Misery (1990)- constantly switching genres over the next decade or so. Then things changed, starting with North (1994).

Tap‘s star Christopher Guest went on to expand and perfect the mockumentary template with Waiting For Guffman (1996), Best In Show (2000) and A Mighty Wind (2003). But Tap was his beginning, a showcase of eccentric individuals and uncomfortable situations (I would argue that The Office never would have existed without it). However, it seems like Guest’s mockumentary works are on hiatus for the time being.

But this is the origin of their careers: their first major success. And how brilliant it is. What makes Tap so interesting is that the movie seems real (and in fact many viewers believed that it was). It’s a joke not only because of its punchlines but because no one is laughing in it. It’s a “documentary” so there is no choice other than playing it straight. That is where it excels. The humor succeeds because of its truths, even though the average viewer has never experienced them.

This also explains why Tap cut close to the bone, particularly with actual musicians and rock stars in the business. It has been reported that Eddie Van Halen, Steven Tyler, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Dee Snider and Ozzy Osbourne didn’t find it very funny because they had gone through similar experiences. Tom Waits and U2’s The Edge both claimed that they cried while watching it.

For me the depictions of fame, ego, falling from grace and artistic integrity (or lack thereof) is what makes Tap fascinating- perhaps more than ever. As strange as some of the interactions and arguments are they are true to the world they represent. The film also depicts the bubble that insulates the famous and explains how they can come across as insane.

Tap also intrigues me because upon repeat viewings I suspected a love triangle between Nigel Tufnel (Guest), David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) and Jeanine Pettibone (June Chadwick). I’m not the only one who thinks this. After all, it’s hard to ignore the way Nigel broods over David and resents the hell out of his girlfriend. The triangle is not necessarily sexual in nature, but then again Nigel is the kind of guy who might not be aware he’s gay.

Of course, I wouldn’t force this theory on anyone. It’s just food for thought.

And whether you agree or not, it doesn’t really matter. Chances are if you’re reading this you’re a fan and you own the DVD too. What we can argue about is the more important stuff, like whether those amps really go to 11.


2 thoughts on “Z To A: This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

  1. You already mentioned the Edge’s comments, but i will add that they had the same mechanical malfunction as did Spinal tap, during the Pop concert they were stuck in their 40 foot mechanical Lemon. They actually found it humorous.
    BTW I don’t have this dvd, so maybe someone else with great taste could get it for me for upcoming m-day or a b-day…

  2. Pingback: End Of The Year Almanac #4: The Funniest Comedies Of 2016 – The Holy Shrine

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