“It’s such a fine line between stupid and, uh… clever.”
The concept of satire has been lost along the way of modern movie production. The American Heritage Dictionary defines satire as: “A literary work in which human foolishness or vice is attacked through irony, derision, or wit.” Most work marketed as satire today is instead simply parody, which imitates for comedic effect rather than use wit for social commentary. This is Spinal Tap, directed by Rob Reiner (Stand By Me, The Princess Bride) and starring Christopher Guest and Michael McKean, is a satire of the rock music scene of the late 70s and early 80s that uses parody as well as wit and derision to showcase how ridiculous it is. It’s produced as a documentary about a fictional band, and followed that formula so well that some viewers commented that they loved the movie, but wished it would have covered a more popular band. This mockumentary style has produced many films over the years, from Best in Show to Borat to What We Do in the Shadows, but my favorite remains This is Spinal Tap. It’s hilarious, memorable, extremely quotable, and earns its place as the greatest rock and roll comedy of all time.
The plot follows the rock band Spinal Tap for a year as they struggle with bad reviews, waning popularity, and canceled shows. They reminisce about their glory days, the many drummers they’ve had over the years, and the different musical styles they went through. They struggle through unfortunate stage prop design, confusing backstage labyrinths, and getting booked alongside a puppet show. They have disagreements about the direction of the band, and whose fault it is when something goes wrong. There’s plenty to laugh at, but it really feels like a year on the road with Spinal Tap.
The review you had on Shark Sandwich, which was merely a two word review, just said, “Shit sandwich.”
This movie is both clever and hilarious, but the best part of it by far is how accurate it is regarding its subject matter. Ozzy Osbourne has actually said that when he saw it, he was the only one not laughing because it was so accurate that he thought it was a real documentary. U2 guitarist The Edge said, “I didn’t laugh; I wept. It was so close to the truth.” (He probably wept more when U2 was actually caught inside a giant metal lemon that malfunctioned and didn’t open on stage, delaying their concert and making Spinal Tap’s stage malfunction look graceful.) Metallica also loved the movie and went as far as re-enacting the airport security scene and mimicking the unfortunately redesigned cover art of Spinal Tap’s Black Album. And it’s no accident. Many of the more ridiculous aspects of the film are pulled from real life, such as Nigel playing his guitar with a violin being inspired by Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page playing his guitar with a violin bow for years. This isn’t just a movie that makes a few rock and roll-themed jokes—the more you understand rock and roll, the better this movie is.
This is Spinal Tap was also very influential. It did for rock bands what Office Space did for offices. Nigel’s little rant on his amp that goes to eleven is still terminology that’s lovingly used in bands today. (“This solo needs to turn it up to eleven” is a phrase I’ve actually heard in band practice.) It also spurned a series of mockumentary movies about everything from community theater (Waiting for Guffman) to dog shows (Best in Show) to folk music (A Mighty Wind), and its success probably paved the way for other movies like Borat and the countless fake documentaries made today. This was not the first fake documentary, but it is arguably the most influential.
Whether you know the complete history of rock and roll or not, This is Spinal Tap is funny, witty, and intelligent, as well as trend-setting. It’s held up well over the years and remains my favorite rock and roll movie of all time. The language is definitely mature and some of the understated jokes will fly over the heads of younger viewers, but teens and adults alike will find something to laugh at. For musicians and rock fans, this is absolutely essential viewing.
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Director: Rob Reiner
Genres: comedy, music