In my review of Moon a couple of years ago, I talked about the strange mystique surrounding debut features. The first effort of a budding filmmaker can come to define their entire career - something which is a blessing if it leads to future success and a curse if it turns out to be their only work of any note. While Rob Reiner has continued to produce great work, with a run of form that lasted well into the 1990s, he has never topped his work on This Is Spinal Tap, a film which created the modern mockumentary and remains one of the funniest comedies of the 1980s.
The cult status that Spinal Tap has enjoyed for so long is evident by how many of its lines have entered into our everyday lexicon. Whenever a TV presenter talks about the effort levels of sportsmen or the atmosphere at a gig, you can put your house on the phrase "turned up to 11" being in there somewhere. Nigel Tufnell's remark about there being "a fine line between stupid and clever" is frequently used by reviewers, particularly when reviewing comedies. Even lesser lines, about D Minor being "the saddest of all keys" and Tufnell's comments about the album cover ("How much more black could it be?... None more black") have become instantly recognisable.
From a filmmaking point of view, Spinal Tap is an editing masterclass. Where subsequent spoofs like Wayne's World were constructed from a script, Reiner's was created out of dozens of hours of improvisation in front of camera. The cast and Reiner filmed themselves, keeping the cameras rolling to capture anything interesting or funny that came out. Reiner then edited down this mountain of footage to a lean, taut running time of 82 minutes (a 4 1/2-hour bootleg also exists, and some die-hard fans would hold this to be the proper version).
As well as demonstrating Reiner's directorial discipline, there are two positive side effects to this approach. Because the cameras were rolling pretty much all the time, there is never any sense of the jokes being staged or choreographed. The humour flows freely - so freely in fact that you may not pick up on every joke the first time round. The other positive side effect lies in the camerawork. Because no-one ever knew where the next joke would be coming from, the crew had to be on their toes and get close to the actors. There is an intimacy to Spinal Tap which you don't get either in Wayne's World or in earlier efforts like The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash.
The secret of Spinal Tap's success as a mockumentary is the balance between naturalism and absurdity. Even though what the band are doing is clearly pompous, preposterous and egomaniacal in the extreme, they feel like real people rather than puppets of a didactic director. The intimacy of the camerawork, coupled with the comic timing of the performers, gives the impression that everyone involved on camera believes in the stories the characters are telling and the music they are playing.
Unlike The Rutles, where Eric Idle was constantly winking at the audience, there is never a moment where the performers break the fourth wall and try to bring the audience in on the joke. Even when Rob Reiner appears on screen as the 'director' of the 'film', the perfect little bubble surrounding the characters is never punctured. The performers are confident enough in their abilities and the strength of the material that the audience will pick up on the joke, rather than being told that it's a joke. Ultimately this wasn't entirely the case, with early audiences believing that the band was real, and with Spinal Tap eventually going out on the road as a bona fide rock band.
Spinal Tap is a satire on heavy metal and the rock industry as it was in the 1980s. It shows how the trends in 1980s metal that we recognise had grown out of both the more pompous, self-absorbed end of prog rock and the harsher side of glam. The long hair, guitar-shredding, lengthy solos and elaborate entrances successfully convey how bloated and theatrical big-bucks rock music has become. The levels of ego and stupidity present on the tour for Smell the Glove are enough to send anyone running to buy up The Smiths' back catalogue.
The film is replete with references to rock stars and iconic rock images. The blank black cover to Smell the Glove (put out as a compromise with the record company) is a nod to both The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album) and the external, 'bin-liner' cover of Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here. There are further Beatles references in the character of Jeanine: she is the Yoko Ono who comes in and breaks up the group, turning the song-writing pair against each other through her peculiar artsy taste.
The musical numbers in Spinal Tap are brilliantly smart send-ups of songs from the era, with no genre from the 1970s and 1980s being left unscathed. 'Stonehenge' is a welcome piss-take of Yes with their hugely ambitious sets, while 'Jazz Odyssey' looks towards the noodling of Stanley Clarke's 'Dream Suite' or King Crimson's 'Moonchild'. The performances combine the tongue-poking of Kiss with the schoolboy cheek of AC/DC, and because all the performers are playing their own instruments (another plus over The Rutles), we really believe someone could genuinely be stupid enough to not only write these songs but play them with passion.
Although the satire in Spinal Tap is clear, it is also deeply affectionate. This is demonstrated not just by the musicianship of the actors, but the amount of effort that clearly went into writing these songs in the first place. Had they gone the easy way, writing 'so-bad-they're-bad' songs to get cheap, mean-spirited laughs, the gag would have worn off in 5 minutes and we wouldn't care about the men behind the egos. The fact that Spinal Tap went on to have a legitimate pop career is testament to this effort - they knew how to write so-bad-they're-good songs and play them with a straight face (well, sort of).
The film also delves into other issues surrounding rock and roll. The band's arguments with their manager, akin to those which inspired the Queen song 'Death On Two Legs', tap into claims about the record industry ruining the creativity of artists by their desire for commercial success. The arguments over Smell the Glove find their incompetent manager Ian Faith trying to persuade the band that the change from their intended cover is in fact a bold artistic choice. The theme of artistic mismanagement continues in promoter Artie Fufkin, a possible reference to Rupert Pupkin from The King of Comedy.
There are also discussions raised about whether it is possible to be a rock star in your 40s, the homoerotic undertones of rock (Tap play largely to young male audiences), and whether being 'big in Japan' is no bad thing. But outside of its acerbic observations about rock, the film is also a convincing piss-take of the rock doc format. Some of the best scenes in This Is Spinal Tap are its recreations of earlier periods of music, akin to The Rutles' reimagining of The Ed Sullivan Show. The performance of Spinal Tap's early hit, 'Listen To The Flower People', perfectly recreates the kind of TV performances The Beatles and The Who used to do, with the band on different levels on the stage and random dancers alongside for no reason.
This Is Spinal Tap remains one of the funniest films of the 1980s and the peak of Rob Reiner's much-lauded career. It takes a little while to get going, and the romantic twist at the end may seem contrived to some, but the vast majority of the charm and the humour remains intact. The Stonehenge sequence in particular, with an 18-inch model descending behind Nigel Tufnell, will still have you in hysterics. When everything is said and done, it still stands as the definitive mockumentary of this and any era, and as far as Reiner is concerned, there's none more funny.