In various subsets of American culture, there seems to be a corresponding film — usually comedic — to go with it. One that captures the essence of the subject and thus is revered by those who live within the world such movies lovingly lampoon. On the golf course, it’s impossible to go eighteen holes without a quote from Caddyshack ("Gambling is illegal at Bushwood, sir, and I never slice!"). In the now-gone commodities pits of Chicago and New York, lines from Trading Places were bantered about so often they became as much a part of our lexicon as “buy” and “sell”. (During market rallies someone would invariably cry out: “The Dukes are buying!”)
And when it comes to the rock music world, anyone who’s ever been in a band is hard-pressed to make it through a practice without at least one reference to This Is Spinal Tap. (In my own crew, whenever we’re at a loss for what to work on next, someone might suggest “Jazz Odyssey”.)
For those who’ve never seen the film, Spinal Tap is actor/director Rob Reiner’s masterful “mockumentary” that follows a fading British rock band on its 1982 American tour. It’s a brilliant satire of the Heavy Metal era, with the eponymous band engaging in rampant hedonism on the road while performing pretentious and suggestive guitar-weighted songs like “Sex Farm," “Hell Hole” and “Big Bottoms”.
With a stellar cast, Spinal Tap takes its cues from the serious rockumentaries of the day, like The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains The Same, and The Who’s The Kids Are Alright. Fictional TV-commercial director Marty DiBergi (Reiner) takes us through Spinal Tap’s many iterations, from its early Sixties mop-top skiffle incarnation as The Thamesmen, featuring a black-and-white TV performance of their single “Gimme Some Money,” to the Summer of Love when they first became Spinal Tap and made it big with the sitar-and-LSD-laced “Listen To The Flower People.”
The film features a series of interviews with the three core members of the group. They are co-founders and school chums David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) and Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), and their philosophical, pipe-smoking bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) who sees himself as the linchpin between two musical geniuses. McKean, Guest and Shearer are credited writers along with Reiner as so much of the dialogue was ad-libbed.
The eclectic cast provides supporting roles and cameos almost too numerous to mention: Tony Hendra as the band’s cheerleading if sometimes mendacious manager, Ian Faith (“The Boston gig’s been cancelled. I wouldn’t worry about it, though. Not a big college town.”); Fran Drescher as Polymer Records artist liaison and “hostess with the mostest” Bobbi Flekman; Paul Shaffer as incompetent Polymer promoter Artie Fufkin; Billy Crystal and Dana Carvey as mime waiters (“Do the dead bird…come on, mime is money!”); Patrick MacNee as Polymer Chairman Sir Dennis Eton-Hogg; Fred Willard as Air Force Lt. Bob Hookstratten; plus Anjelica Huston, Ed Begley Jr., Paul Benedict, Howard Hesseman, Bruno Kirby, and others.
The plot line follows the group as they play gigs across the USA promoting their latest album, Smell The Glove, even as their fame diminishes. (At one point a radio dee-jay refers to them as residing in the “where are they now file.”) When DiBergi mentions that Tap has gone from filling 15,000-seat arenas to mere 1,000-seat venues, and wonders if this means their popularity is waning, the smooth-talking Faith dismisses the notion, offering rather that the band’s appeal has simply become “more selective.” Reviews of their previous albums, Intravenus De Milo, Rock ‘N Roll Creation (aka. The Gospel According To Spinal Tap), and Shark Sandwich are just as discouraging. Shark Sandwich, in fact, garners a mere two-word review: “S**t sandwich.”
By the end of the tour, tensions between Tufnel and St. Hubbins’ intrusive girlfriend, Jeanine Pettibone (June Chadwick), and a slew of canceled shows due to lack of fan interest—compelling them in desperation to play an Air Force base mixer and a fair puppet show—trigger the band’s rancorous dissolution. But then they find their careers resurrected by an 11th-hour resurgence of popularity in Japan, and the show ends on a high note, as it should.
The genius of Spinal Tap goes well beyond the clever banter, ludicrous scenes (like a one foot-high model of Stonehenge for a stage prop) or faux British accents. The creators had to write songs just appealing and real enough to be believed as bona fide rock tunes (“Gimme Some Money” was even featured in an American Express commercial) yet also so absurd as to hit the funny bone just right with, as one reviewer put it, “retarded sexuality and bad poetry.” This was no small creative challenge and is often overlooked as the most impressive achievement of the film.
Funny as it is to my generation, for kids who came of age with Justin Bieber and Katy Perry, it’s hard to imagine the many Rock n’ Roll motifs in Spinal Tap striking a familiar chord: the constant rotation of supporting musicians (Yardbirds, Allman Brothers and Eagles); the premature deaths of their many drummers (Keith Moon and John Bonham) whether from spontaneous combustion, choking on vomit, or a “bizarre gardening accident”; the corrosive effect of an omnipresent girlfriend (Yoko Ono); the all-black Smell The Glove album cover (The White Album). One can only assume that, like the band’s appeal itself, Spinal Tap’s fan base today is becoming “more selective” as its target audience ages. *Sigh*
But for those of us who still find a sense of recognition in Reiner’s film, shot thirty-five years ago, Spinal Tap demonstrates the power of the cinema to shape our cultural narrative, not just in the broad scope of politics, but in the day-to-day interactions of life. Besides always appearing in any “Best 100 Films” list, Spinal Tap has been deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress. It's as much a part of its musical era as the many acts Cuisonarted together to create this iconic expression of the Hard Rock zeitgeist. It’s a bitter-sweet reminder that all things must pass. Yet, lightning sometimes can strike and a classic result. The heavy Metal era may have passed away, but Spinal Tap lives on.
If anything, Reiner's classic comedy offers us a fun reminder, as per the life motto of Tap's keyboardist, Viv Savage, to "Have a good time all the time!"