THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984) – Comedy that goes up to 11


In my humble opinion, This Is Spinal Tap (1984) is one of the funniest movies ever made, all the more so because of the deadpan seriousness with which its minimally talented leads take themselves.

The movie is a send-up of rock-music pretentiousness as embodied in Spinal Tap, a heavy-metal group consisting of David (Michael McKean), Nigel (Christopher Guest), and Derek (Harry Shearer). The movie’s conceit is that a low-level filmmaker, Marty DiBergi (played by Rob Reiner, whose directorial debut this was), is doing a documentary about Spinal Tap’s latest American tour.

The movie was mostly improvised by Reiner and his stars, and the detail that went into their improvisations was enough to make many moviegoers believe that Spinal Tap was a genuine band. “Historical footage” shows Tap’s origins as a British skiffle band, evolving into a ’60s flower-power group before devolving into macho power-guitarists.

The mock-documentary clearly shows that the group is well on its way down, with concerts being cancelled right and left. (When a Boston gig is killed, their manager shrugs it off: “It’s not much of a college town anyway.”) The final straw is when David’s girlfriend meets up with him mid-tour and, Yoko Ono-style, tries to run roughshod over the band’s management.

Even when the movie’s isn’t laugh-out-loud funny (which it usually is), one is impressed with how realistically bad the band is. One of their hits — “Big Bottom,” a paean to female behinds — seems outrageous, until you recall that the real rock group Queen had a similar hit titled “Fat-Bottomed Girls.” It’s as though Reiner & Co. plotted out the legitimate story of a rock band and then turned it just slightly askew to milk it for huge laughs.

“Mock-umentary” comedies have practically become their own genre (and Tap‘s Christopher Guest has been responsible for the best of them, such as the dog-contest parody Best in Show). But This Is Spinal Tap remains the gold standard — proving, as one of its characters says, that “There’s such a fine line between brilliant…and stupid.”

(The DVD version is even more of a hoot, with the three leads offering far more commentary than is good for their images.)