's 1984 mockumentary
This Is Spinal Tap is one of the best and most influential comedy films ever made. The
idea of a largely improvised spoof documentary about a hugely egotistical (and toe-curlingly mediocre) hair metal
sounds like material for a Saturday Night Live
sketch or a cultish low-budget student favourite at best, but the film is
much more subtle than its low-brow subject matter might suggest. Tap
has been praised by serious film critics
and is on the list of "significant" films maintained by the United States Library of Congress
Spinal Tap are David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) and Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest). The film documents their U.S. tour to promote their latest album, Smell The Glove. It becomes increasingly apparent as the film progresses that Tap's career is on the skids - their self-indulgent, chauvinistic style being seen as an amusing anachronism even in the early 1980s.
Performances of the band's songs (all written and played by the performers themselves) are used to lampoon various aspects of rock music culture and lore. A recap of the band's earlier work takes potshots at Mersey beat pop, psychedelia and prog rock. Between the songs and ab libbed interviews, there is a sketchy dramatic plot involving St. Hubbins' new age spiritualist girlfriend subverting the creative direction of the band, eventually prompting Nigel (along with the band's manager) to quit.
The film is elevated to the status of a comedy classic by dint of the amount of creative work that the primary performers have put into developing the characters and their world. If the cast had simply turned up, acted 'wacky' for a few hours each day and collected their cheque, the film would have ended up as throwaway entertainment like so many modern Hollywood comedies.
The film's cleverest and funniest ideas have slowly seeped into the cultural lexicon over the long years of TV and video circulation. "These go up to eleven" (from the scene in which Tufnel proudly demonstrates the band's custom Fender amps, with volume dials that go up to eleven) has been endlessly referenced, most recently by the BBC's iPlayer streaming video site. The "average Spinal Tap drummer" has supplanted the mayfly as the measure of brief longevity. Their songs have been covered by 'real' bands (Soundgarden's version of Big Bottom is particularly excellent).
The film spawned a mini-genre of fake documentaries, the leading proponents being Christopher Guest and his repertory company of regular collaborators, which typically includes himself, McKean and Shearer, Eugene Levy, Parker Posey and (the amazing) Fred Willard. To date this group has made four films in the Tap formula: Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration; collectively referred to by Something Awful as Guest's "let's chuckle at earnest people" movies.
Similar efforts by other hands include Fear of a Black Hat, and the Comic Strip TV films Bad News Tour (which actually very slightly predates Spinal Tap) and More Bad News. Jack Black's comedy/rock band Tenacious D, and the Guitar Hero and Rock Band video game franchises are obviously significantly indebted to the movie.
The band has been resurrected on numerous occasions since the release of the film, most recently for the Live Earth charity concert in 2007, where they performed Big Bottom with "every bass player in the known universe".
The film is currently available on DVD, with a commentary track by the band in character, and a bonus disc with well over an hour of deleted scenes, some of which are as good or better than anything that made the final cut (particularly the scene at the end in which the band visits a zoo and Nigel philosophises about the lives of monkeys).