Comedies rank among the toughest movies to review properly, and the better the comedy, the harder one struggles to explain exactly how and why it works so well. In the end, all that matters is that you laugh. The best comedies make you laugh over and over, even after screening them a dozen times. This Is Spinal Tap certainly belongs among the ranks of the all-time greats: an epic put-down of rock and roll music that simultaneously perfected the mockumentary sub-genre and took the careers of everyone involved to another level. Its quotable lines are a big part of its success, as is the evergreen nature of its target (pop music’s eternal pomposity will always need a good pasting) and the sheer talent of the people involved.
Director Rob Reiner took an improvisational approach to the material: setting up the basic premise of a scene and letting his cast run with it to see what developed. Through that lens, we get a front-row seat to the disastrous tour of "one of England's loudest bands," as they stumble through blown gigs, entourage dysfunction and the specter of advancing age that threatens to bring their pubescent fantasy life crashing down around them. Front-man David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), lead guitar Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) and bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) experience all manner of self-inflicted humiliations, dragging bandmates, groupies and scheming Yoko Ono clones along for the ride.
The basic premise makes its own gravy, so spot-on that no less a luminary than Steven Tyler accused them of making a personal attack. (Granted, he was loopy on heroin at the time, but still.) The band's songs are lousy through and through, but the right kind of toe-tapping lousiness that could easily climb the charts. Their various pratfalls and hijinks -- from getting lost underneath the stage in Cleveland to the infamous Stonehenge monument -- feel too outrageous not to have some basis in truth.
The band richly deserves everything they get, aided by their narcissistic entitlement and an overall befuddlement that blinds them to just how dreadfully wrong everything has gone. They've earned it all in part because they have no real musical identity of their own. In one of the film's more ingenious conceits, they seem to switch roles with every new trend, going from skiffle mopheads to psychadelic hippies to big hair heavy metalists as fast as you can say "costume change." 80s metal certainly makes an inviting target, but by stressing their willingness to change on a dime, the film makes them an ageless cipher rather than just a send-up of a particular era. They become every band we've ever watched fight their way through an interview, every pretentious star convinced that the party will never stop. Sooner or later, every band will end up where they're going, the movie silently promises, and when they do it won’t be any less absurd than this.
And as the late Roger Ebert pointed out in one of his typically astute reviews, we actually envy them that journey. As battered and bruised as they are -- as used-up and threadbare a their world is -- it's still a world largely devoid of consequences, where they can keep banging out their turgid hits in front of adoring fans and pretending they're the center of the universe. Some small part of us quietly wishes we could join them in those half-empty arenas, rocking out in a crumbling Shangri-La that pretty much only exists in their minds. It plants just enough sympathy to endear these holy fools to us, and to move This is Spinal Tap into the realm of a beloved classic. We'd seen mockumentaries before (Woody Allen was quite fond of the format), but never with the perfect mixture of affection and ridicule that this one produces. It proved so ideal that Guest based an entire filmmaking career around the formula, finding all manner of weird subcultures to alternately celebrate and destroy. He proved quite adept at it, but even he couldn't match what they achieved here: a brilliant pop culture icon, a savage comment on rock’s excess, and one of the funniest movies of this or any other year. Yes Nigel, you did go to 11. Where would cinematic comedy be if you hadn't?