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With: Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Rob Reiner, Bruno Kirby, Fran Drescher, Dana Carvey, Billy Crystal, Paul Shaffer, Anjelica Huston, Fred Willard
Written by: Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Rob Reiner
Directed by: Rob Reiner
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 82
Date: 02/03/1984

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Fine Line Between Stupid and Clever

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy This Is Spinal Tap on DVD.

Back in my early days of being a movie aficionado, I made a blanket statement to my friends, calling This is Spinal Tap (1984) a perfect film. Its very format, the mock-documentary made it so, I said. It didn't have any screenplay, editing or camera flaws. Today, I have much more knowledge about film and I am much more careful about making blanket statements. But I still think This is Spinal Tap is a perfect film.

This is Spinal Tap, which opens today for a 2000 re-release in various theaters, is a completely phony documentary directed by Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) about an aging British heavy metal band embarking on a new tour to promote their latest album, "Smell the Glove". The lead members are David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer), plus a series of drummers who keep dying in various ways.

The documentary is perfectly deadpan as it captures all the various things that go horribly wrong such as the band members being unable to find the entrance to the stage, a model of Stonehenge appearing at 18 inches tall instead of 18 feet, and Air Force radio signals interfering with the wireless electric guitar remotes. Inbetween we hear from the members themselves, who are not too bright. Tufnel has a set of amps that "go to eleven" because "eleven is one louder, isn't it?". St. Hubbins has a blonde hippie girlfriend who devises an idea to dress the band members like signs of the zodiac. And Smalls gets caught in an airport metal detector with a cucumber in his pants, inexplicably wrapped in aluminum foil. Not one of these jokes is smashed over our heads or explained to us in any way. Legend has it that the first test audiences for This is Spinal Tap took it for real.

The major achievement of the film is that it never sets up a shot that wouldn't actually be in a real documentary about a real band. In other mockumentaries of recent years -- Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) and The Big Tease (2000), and Guest's own Waiting for Guffman (1997) among them -- scenes are inserted that are obviously written in an effort to move the "story" forward. The makers of This is Spinal Tap operated like a real documentary crew and crafted their story out of what they shot (which was loosely written but largely improvised).

Then there are the brilliant songs, written and played by McKean, Guest, and Shearer, with classically bad names like "Sex Farm" ("I can feel my silo rising high") and "Big Bottom" ("How can I leave this behind?"). They're just real enough to be convincing and just bad enough to be funny.

Probably the most convincing bit, though, is a clip of an old Sixties TV show with "younger" versions of the band playing a horribly aged song called "Cups and Cakes", spoofing the Sixties (as well as the Eighties' attitude of the Sixties) in one fell swoop.

This is Spinal Tap was one of my favorite cult movies growing up, and I've seen it some 20 times. I even went to see the band live when they toured in 1992, and pretended to be a real Spinal Tap fan, just as the actors were pretending to be a band. The movie has become legendary now, too well known to be worthy of cult status. Anyone making a rock movie or a documentary, fake or real, has to consider comparisons to it. It's a staple in all rock bands' touring buses. Anyone who hasn't seen it will have a chance now to catch it in theaters, plus in a new DVD version with an hour's worth of outtakes. It's a milestone in American comedy cinema.

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