Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Reeling Backward: "This Is Spinal Tap"

"This Is Spinal Tap" has become such a part of the pop culture lexicon, and indeed even created a new genre of film called the mockumentary, that it is possible to feel like you've experienced it without ever having actually seen it. Like me.

I had seen numerous clips from "Spinal Tap," such as the infamous our-amplifiers-go-to-11 bit, and a few other bits and pieces. But I'd never actually watched it all the way through.

Now that I have, I'm probably going to commit a little bit of heresy by saying that I was slightly disappointed by it. Yes, there are quite a few laugh-out-loud moments, and the improvisational nature of the comedy by Michael McKeon, Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest and the rest of the cast is truly infectious. Many of the same performers would go on to more success in the fake documentary genre with "Best in Show," "A Mighty Wind" and so on.

But when you strip out all those classic bits, the movie -- seen nearly 30 years later -- comes uncomfortably close to reality. The behind-the-stage scenes of band members falling out with each other, wives and girlfriends intruding into the creative mix, the put-upon manager trying to keep it all together -- we've seen it all before in real documentaries. They don't seem so funny viewed in the context of all the other stuff we know about actual bands.

Plus, coming in 1984 "Spinal Tap" ended up heralding some of the worst trends in rock 'n' roll -- big hair bands, Spandex, simplistic chords and sex-addled lyrics that turned rock over to the mindset of a pubescent boy for a while.

The songs, which were intended to be ridiculous, could actually pass for real radio hits of one era or another.

For me, the strongest part of the movie was the relationship between David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel (played by Michael McKeon and Christopher Guest, respectively) as the Lennon and McCartney of Tap. Old school chums who've managed to keep the band going through thick and thin (mostly thin), they have a vibe that's sort of touching amidst all the goofery.

Harry Shearer, as the bassist and third wheel, has a wonderfully self-deluding personality where he convinces himself that they really are on their way back to being rock gods, despite the fact that they never were in the first place, and gigs are being canceled underneath them left and right. And, it's hard not to laugh at a guy who hides a cucumber down his pants. (Although why that would set off the metal detector in the famous airport scene mystifies me.)

I feel like I'm being too down on this movie. I quite enjoyed long stretches of it, and it's somewhat amazing to sit there and think that this idea of making an uber-serious documentary about ridiculous or patently fictitious subjects hadn't been tried before. It's just that when you look back at it over a few decades, you realize that the mockumentary hadn't yet been perfected, merely created.

3 stars out of four

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