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Warning: this review goes up to eleven
This Is Spinal Tap (DVD)
Member Name: steerpyke
This Is Spinal Tap (DVD)
Advantages: a all too truthful parody of rock music
Disadvantages: not everyones subject matter
One of the problems with films that are parodies of a subject is that it requires a certain amount of knowledge of that subject by the viewer. To a large degree this is true of “This Is Spinal Tap”. Whilst some of the humour is based on the sheer stupidity of the music business and even human nature, the most enjoyment can only be wrought from the film if you have at least a working knowledge of rock bands and all that goes with that scene. Whereas creations such as “Bad News” are really just a collection of childish slapstick ideas and “Still Crazy” is a well-rounded story in its own right, “…Spinal Tap” is rock and roll under the surgical knife, dissected, analysed and played for laughs. If it’s the jokes and humorous script that is on the most accessible level of the film, there is another more subtle level that is only apparent to those who can relate the whole rock genre through inside experience. Two things make this possible. The script is well crafted and the obvious product of someone very familiar with there territory. Only someone with a deep understanding of rock music could cut so savagely into its soft underbelly. The second factor that makes this more than just a cheap laugh at rock and roll is the convincing performance of those actors involved. Those playing the band members are all musicians as well as actors and when you see them in action; it is to a large degree a live performance. Also the band seem convincingly comfortable in the roles they bring to the screen, the result of either personal experience or at least a lot of research. What also adds to the believability of the dialogue is that much of it was improvised and for that it gains a lot of authenticity and off the cuff manner.
The film takes the form of a “rockumentry” (or should that be a “mockumentry”) that is, in the same way that “The Office” is meant to be a fly on the wall look at the daily life of the office, this is a fly on the wall look at an ageing rock band touring in a world that has left them far behind. As they tour across North America all the stereotypical scenarios are played out and all the archetypes are present and correct. From the girlfriend who is striving for control of the band to the sycophantic record company representatives and from the Stonehenge stage sets to the over the top guitar solos, it’s all there. The three main characters from the band bear more than a passing resemblance to real life rock stars. Singer/Guitarist David St Hubbins (named after the patron saint of quality footwear we are told) has a lot of Status Quos, Rick Parfitt about him Moody Nigel Tuffnel is a lead guitar player in the image of Jeff Beck and the Bassist, Derek Smalls (who sees himself as the lukewarm water caught between the fire and ice of his guitarists) is a more refined Lemmy in appearance. And its not just caricatures of musicians that appear here, there are real ones as well. Paul Simon crops up as a tragically inept record company promoter a role that he carries well, probably from years of having to suffer at the hands of such vermin.
The music is very convincing and due to the childish nature of the lyrics and the indulgent nature of the music and the performance you could be forgiven for thinking that this is the real thing, such is the fine line between parody and reality. Songs with names such as, Rock Ya Tonite, Big Bottom, Hell Hole and Sex Farm could be found in any early eighties Heavy Metal album such as Judas Priest or Saxon. In fact Saxon found the portrayal so authentic that the entire band walked out of the opening night screening, convinced that it was a personal attack on them. There may be some truth in this as Derek Smalls' bass-playing technique (playing with one hand, so the other is free to point in the air) is based on the bass player from Saxon.
There are some set pieces within the film, sketches that can be taken out of the context of the whole and viewed as classic sketches. These lines are as quotable as any Monty Python or Blackadder script. For example Nigel is playing a slow moody piano piece whilst being interviewed by the documentary maker.
[Marty DiBergi: It's very pretty.
Nigel Tufnel: Yeah, I've been fooling around with it for a few months.
Marty DiBergi: It's a bit of a departure from what you normally play.
Nigel Tufnel: It's part of a trilogy, a musical trilogy I'm working on in D minor, which is the saddest of all keys, I find. People weep instantly when they hear it, and I don't know why.
Marty DiBergi: It's very nice.
Nigel Tufnel: You know, just simple lines intertwining, you know, very much like - I'm really influenced by Mozart and Bach, and it's sort of in between those, really. It's like a Mach piece, really. It's sort of...
Marty DiBergi: What do you call this?
Nigel Tufnel: Well, this piece is called "Lick My Love Pump".
The crassness of dated cliché Heavy Metal is never lurking far away, ready to deliver a punch line as and when. Other telling tales are written into the story, such as when the band are listening to music press reviews which never seem to be very complimentary. The latest album managed to evoke the following response. "This pretentious ponderous collection of religious rock psalms is enough to prompt the question, 'what day did the Lord create Spinal Tap, and couldn't he have rested on that day too?'"
Oh course every film has its defining scene, and for me its Christopher Guest as Nigel explaining to the documentary maker that his amp goes up to eleven in volume instead of the normal ten. “Why don't you just make ten louder and make ten the top number and make that a little louder?” responds DiBergi. Baffled by the logic of that all he can do is mull the idea over and offer the reply “But these go up to eleven”
As I said in the opening salvo, although there is a lot of humorous mileage to be had by the casual viewer, there are a lot of in-jokes, which can only be picked out by the rock, devote. During the song "Big Bottom", all three front men are playing bass and the bass player actually has a double necked bass this is a parody of 70's guitarists (such as Jimmy Page) who would play double-necked guitars. Album covers, clothing and songs are all sent up and even names are part of the myriad layers of satire found here. Nigel Tufnel is a play on the idea that Eric Clayton’s name is from the formula, dull name plus a place in London, so if you want to chose a rock and roll stage name, now you know how its done. (How about Colin Richmond or Norman Staines? Wow, it works.) Rob Reiner's character Marty DiBergi is an homage to Martin Scorsese (Marty), Brian De Palma (Di), and Steven Spielberg' (Berg). There are, as you can see more jokes per minute in this film that you thought possible, some of them just take a bit of finding.
One of the accolades to how convincing a portrayal has been created here is that after the film opened, several people approached director Rob Reiner telling him that they loved the film, but he should have chosen a better-known band to do a documentary on. This film does for rock and roll what "The Sound of Music" did for hills. Pass me my air guitar, if you please.
Summary: a great parody of a touring rock band