This is Spinal Tap is so inescapably rife with over-the-top zaniness and gleeful, knowing stupidity. But for all its exuberance, what’s most astounding about this concoction of sugar and spice is how easy-going, relaxed, and even lethargic it is. The tone of the film conveys a sort of laid-back afternoon, with sly, subversively restrained performances complementing characters rather than stealing them and running away with them. This is not one of the many throw-shit-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks-films becoming popular around the time of this film’s release; it’s a comedy with a difference. The batting average for jokes is remarkable, with each one seemingly assembled with care and craft. It is a thoroughly composed, careful, willful, and even delicate motion picture, and it is one of the sharpest comedies ever released.
Yet the word “composed” is also a misnomer, a fact which brings us back to the pointedly sedate nature of the film. Comedies almost categorically rely on their pre-packaged scripts, and while Spinal Tap is undeniably a poison-pen love-letter to documentary filmmaking and the modern music industry, it’s also a much scrappier, more ramshackle, and more collaborative affair. The film doesn’t so much feel thought-out as lived-in, and because it seeks to ape the off-the-cuff flightiness of documentary filmmaking, the improvisational nature works like gangbusters. What it captures more than any other film comedy from its decade is the pure sense that humor circles its characters, that “funny” as a concept simply happens around these people because they are so willfully ignorant. There is a naturalistic air to everything, a trick of the light designed to convey circumstance more than intent. No matter how hard everybody behind the camera, and in front of it, is trying to make us laugh, it all comes together with nonchalant, unbothered ease.
And this is precisely the point. Spinal Tap is, after all, a fake documentary film. For all its willful, pointed humor, in order to work it has to come off for all intents and purposes like sloppy, circumstantial hackwork where jokes don’t so much cut with conscious intent as simply spool off the screen against the filmmaker’s will. It has to make us laugh with the straightest of faces, never letting in any light and always hurting to make it seem like the jokes are the result of incompetence and hesitance rather than intellect and wit. It must stumble upon everything, and accidentally stumbling into success is something Rob Reiner and friends prove most adept at. Characters speak as if they’re coming up with the lines on-the-spot. In fact they were, with the heavy, thick-on-the-ground improvisational stew of the film evoking incompetence right down to several flubs and hovered-on images of characters not saying anything because they’re so busy thinking about what to say. The film’s sharpest humor comes from the slow pauses and doopy “I’m thinking” faces, and our realization that the main characters have just thought something idiotic, but to them they’ve discovered the inner secret of the machinations of the galaxy.
This improvisational, workmanlike demeanor allows the film to breathe with awkward conversation and to reveal its own production, rather than to force canned lines down our throat like a parade. The film is so committed to the language of spur-of-the-moment documentary filmmaking, in fact, that it apes the visual cues and proudly non-nuanced camera movements we often see in the genre, crash zooms and half-missed key moments and all. It has an extremely sloppy, chilled-out, “hanging with the guys” feel, but that’s exactly the point – it’s a fake documentary film about a bunch of guys screwing around. The non-rushed, anti-dramatic screenplay captures the low-key zaniness and off-key mundanity of their lives like nothing else.
But enough about the improvisation, as the film does have a basic shell within which the actors and filmmakers must work within, and good taste supposes I should get to this before going to describe what really matters. The film transpires as filmmaker Marti DiBergi (played by director Rob Reiner) attempts a documentary about one of the world’s most popular (at one point in time) metal bands in the world while on a tour through the US in 1982. The band in question: Spinal Tap, composed of lead singer David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), and bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer), as well as a number of drummers, many of whom have died under circumstances such as spontaneous combustion, a bizarre gardening accident, and choking on vomit that may or may not have been his own (after all, “you can’t really dust for vomit”). At one point in time, Spinal Tap was one of the most prominent and popular rock bands in the world. Now, things could be better. Searching for ways to renew their popularity, and just plain trying to keep the rock alive, the band tries to stick together as inner-turmoil and outside influences take their toll and relationships do as rock band relationships are wont to: become increasingly strained.
Spinal Tap is an unabashed comedy. But it’s the feigned seriousness of it all that wins me over every-time. The pseudo-documentary style, deemed mockumentary, bears a resemblance to the pop-anarchism of A Hard Day’s Night from twenty years before-hand and is given new layers of lunacy here. But it’s all played with a delightful straight-face that works on two fronts. The first, aforementioned, is that it allows the film to critique the loving hack filmmakers of the world, and the second is an even greater surprise unto itself: This is Spinal Tap is an undeniably sweet film.
Sure, a great portion of the film (not so) subtly pokes fun at the narcissism and self-important pretense associated with many musicians by presenting them in a manner not dissimilar to innocent, amused children who lose control when they don’t get what they want. Wisely though, neither the actors nor the writers overplay the characters and turn them into obvious parodies, and as the film wants to capture the full essence of low-budget camera-and-a-prayer documentaries, it depicts the love and (still incompetent) care put into them too. This is especially true when it comes to the undeniable humanity of the band – captured exactly as big-time-fan DiBergi (hilariously rendered inept in his inability to comprehend their stupidity when meeting the band) would have wanted. When he’s given a delicious opening scene that parodies directors who internalize the need to feel avuncular and genuine even when they’re hopelessly lost, the film is less calling his love out than saying he merely has no earthly idea how to express it, and the same is true for the band: genuine idiots who aren’t so much bad people as difficult, immature ones. DiBergi, like the band, doesn’t understand a lick about anything, but he cares, and he has heart.
To this extent, the humor is character-based, as the three main musicians play out their rock worldviews among each other, If the film mocks them, it’s a genial mocking, the way friends might go at each other with years of knowledge and companionship under their belts. The film strives for endearment, and the humor comes in the fact that we want to like these characters but can’t find it in ourselves to get past their conceited haziness. They’re completely incompetent, and the filmmakers don’t meaningfully think they are good musicians, but they’re lovably incompetent. While so many comedies spew at the mouth with smug and snide superiority to their characters, this film sits with them and has a beer, warts and all. It knows they kind of suck, but it reacts not with hate or distaste, but morbid empathy.
Obviously, it’s easy to jump headfirst into scene-quoting here, which I’ll keep to a minimum, but indulge me one scene, the film’s most famous. Guitarist Nigel Tufnel explains to director Marti DiBergi how his amplifiers go up to “eleven” just to get “that” extra level of loudness above ten. When Marti asks him why he didn’t just make ten louder and eliminate the eleven, Nigel responds “These go to eleven”. Of course, the 11 is all nonsense – it wouldn’t matter what the number said – but the point that is often missed is the import of Nigel genuinely believing that 11 is bigger and better than 10. It’s an immature worldview, sure, but it’s not without appeal – it’s easy to mock Tufnel, but his idiotic exuberance and honesty is infectious. He cares about it, in his own droopy rock-n-roll way, but then that’s rock for you.
If Reiner wants to poke at this whole metal veneer and open it up for the idiocy it is, his casual sympathy for his characters, and the way he captures them genuinely caring for each other in the touching finale, reveals he understands the genre’s appeal too. Thus, the film works as a swell, proper concert film in its own right, with energetically realized performances and songs with a minor amount of thought put into them (which is just the right amount for lame but catchy pop-metal); in the end, he affords Spinal Tap the success they so desperately crave. I had a professor in college tell me the best way to critique something was from within rather than from above, to explore something from within itself by adopting its ways and reading the internal essence of something beyond itself to exaggerate it, push it to its extreme, and render it fallacy. Reiner clearly understands this maxim of critique. He doesn’t seek to hurt the band; he just wants to sit around and watch them hurt themselves. He has no mercy, but he’s got pity. And if he’s out to have a little fun at the band’s expense, that doesn’t mean he can’t indulge a little and have fun with them too. Thus, Spinal Tap’s witty script is peppered with hilarious lines of dialogue that burn with an acid tongue, but it never loses track of the fundamental but often unstated love-hate truth of ’80s metal: for all its rampant, self-devouring idiocy, the genre was never less than 100% sincere. This is Spinal Tap is a caustic, vinegar-and-spice stew, sure, but it is a warm, comforting, hearty one too. It’s a film of many pleasures, too many to count, and it’s a sheer delight.