Criterion Month is a massive collaboration across 5 websites in honor of Ingmar Bergman’s 100th birthday and of the films of the Criterion Collection. We hope the celebration of this incredible director -and these classic films – inspire others to find new cinema they love and share their discoveries with others.
Spinal Tap is a band of legend. Having changed their name, gimmick, and drummer several times over the years, frontmen and best friends Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) allow filmmaker Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) to document their latest tour as they promote their new album, “Smell The Glove.” Of course, it’s not all sex, drugs and glamour, and DiBergi finds himself documenting a band on the verge of a crisis. It’s not just that their drummers keep mysteriously dying (they do), or that Nigel doesn’t know the difference between feet and inches (he doesn’t), but that times are changing. Creative partners since primary school, Nigel and David are beginning to have creative differences, exacerbated by David’s relationship with girlfriend Jeanine (June Chadwick) and a wavering fan base. When the cover art for “Smell The Glove” is deemed too explicit for distribution, the band’s fortunes take a turn for the worse. “What’s wrong with being sexy?” Nigel demands. “Sexist,” their manager clarifies. Apparently, major retailers don’t want to sell a record with a nude woman on a leash on the cover. Soon, the band is unable to sell tickets, and later (when the cover art is changed to a plain, black-on-black square) unable to sell albums. David’s girlfriend Jeanine’s decision to join the tour complicates things on a personal level, fanning the flames of Nigel’s jealousy until the band threatens to combust (figuratively, unlike one of their poor ex-drummers).
This Is Spinal Tap is a satire that sidles right up to the source material, does a flawless imitation, and then zags to absurdity just long enough to produce a side-splitting laugh. In some spots, like the throwback to the band’s LSD-fuelled flower child era, the joke is simply how absurd the original article looks in hindsight. They aren’t doing anything beyond what other bands like the ‘Green Tambourine’-singing Lemon Pipers were actually doing on television, but you’re laughing.
Other scenes, like their raucous performance of “Sex Farm” at a straight-laced military function, are a little more direct. DiBergi (allegedly a portmanteau of directors Scorcese, DePalma, Spielberg, and Fellini) remains physically present throughout the film, interviewing the band members on-camera and serving as an audience surrogate. It’s fitting that the godfather of the mockumentary would differ from later iterations of the genre, like The Office, which heavily utilize the “talking head” interview style. Even Christopher Guest’s later mockumentaries, such as Waiting For Guffman, rely heavily on talking heads to tell the story, but Spinal Tap doesn’t need them. It is an outlier within the Criterion Collection, which includes very few documentaries or comedies, but the production quality and attention to detail provide justification for its consideration as a classic.
For starters, each of the actors in the fictional band are actually playing their instruments and singing, a change of pace after an era of quasi-fake TV bands like The Partridge Family and The Monkees. They aren’t just passable musicians, they’re actually pretty good, and their characters are entertaining showmen. The actors’ versatility as they parody The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, AC/DC, and several other groups of the era, is impressive, and the supporting cast is superb. The film includes cameos from Fran Drescher, Ed Begley, Jr., Fred Willard, Billy Crystal, Dana Carvey, Paul Schaffer, and countless others. The fact that much of the dialogue (particularly the interview portion in the closing credits) was improvised, “turns it up to eleven.” It’s a film that deserves to be preserved, rewatched, and quoted for years to come.
See This is Spinal Tap on Criterion here.
By Melynda Malley
Melynda Malley is a writer, podcaster (@bingewatchher), sometimes-costume designer, and ampersand enthusiast residing in the Pacific Northwest. She has a real degree in television production and a fake degree in television opinions. Her favorite movies are The Blues Brothers and Tarsem Singh’s The Fall, so she’s probably a pretty weird person. Follow her everywhere @melyndamalley