You Haven’t Seen It? : “Spinal Tap”

By Kendall Levison

via Roger Ebert
via Roger Ebert

I have a confession to make: I have a possibly unhealthy love for the movie “The Princess Bride.”

That movie is not the subject of this column (although if you haven’t see it, you obviously need to).

I mention it because my affection for “The Princess Bride” doesn’t translate to unabashed embrace of everything director Rob Reiner touches. Despite hits likes “When Harry Met Sally,” Reiner can be inconsistent and has had more than a few recent flops. So this is the perfect time to go back to 1984 and one of his most beloved films, “This is Spinal Tap,” the story of “one of England’s loudest bands” and their tour across America to promote their latest albums.

“This is Spinal Tap” manages to combine two genres that are not always successful: band films and mockumentaries. The fake documentary is the perfect choice right from the outset, as it allows director Rob Reiner to act as the film’s narrator in the character of slightly desperate commercial-director-turned-documentarian, Marty DiBergi. Reiner’s core cast is excellent as usual, with Michael McKean as the titular band’s leader and Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer as his bandmates. There are also some excellent cameos, including Billy Crystal in one his first film roles as a mime/waiter and Fred Willard as an Air Force officer who misguidedly hires the band.

The movie fits so perfectly with its mockumentary format that it fooled some people into thinking it was the story of a real band when it first came out. In fact, musicians like Jimmy Page and Lars Ulrich have commented that the film is an eerily actuate depiction of the life of a touring musician. “This is Spinal Tap” achieves this behind-the-scenes tone through a heavy use of improvisation. The film is at its best when Reiner simply puts the camera on his actors and lets them go at it. Some of the movie’s funniest lines are actually in the credit sequence, where Reiner’s character is just asking members of the band inane questions like, “So when you’re playing you feel like a preserved moose on stage?”

First and foremost, “This is Spinal Tap” is a movie about a band. Although Spinal Tap is a parody of heavy metal bands, the film does flesh out the band’s history enough that it feel like Spinal Tap could have actually existed. In one scene, a song from an old TV clip featuring Spinal Tap’s early days as an R&B group with Beatles haircuts is resurrected as a rock anthem by the current band. The movie never claims to be anything but silly; however, it does have conflicts – from shifting band members to falling sales – that plague real musical groups.

“This is Spinal Tap” manages to do a lot in less than two hours. It makes fun of musicians, the music industry, and all of documentary filmmaking. The fact that it manages to be a great comedy at the same time proves that while it is no “Princess Bride,” “This is Spinal Tap” has a magic all it’s own.

Kendall Levison is a contributing writer. Email her at film@nyunews.com.

 

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