It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever…” David St. Hubbins
Truer words have never echoed through the hallowed hallways of pop culture history. Our entire modern mythology is dominated by a pantheon of gods who totter between redoubtable genius and pure idiocy. Perhaps no film has better captured that savage balancing act with the eagle eye of This is Spinal Tap. Indeed, Tap initially bombed at the box office because audiences thought they were watching a real rock band. Musicians cringed at the film’s surgical accuracy. (Steven Tyler reportedly stormed out of a screening.) Now, it’s a bona fide cinematic institution that bores to the truth as well as any documentary, mock or otherwise.
The film is introduced by Marty de Bergi (director Rob Reiner), a lively documentarian who accompanies Spinal Tap on their ’82 World Tour: “We’ll capture the sights, the sounds…and the smells of a working rock band.” That band is headed by Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) and David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), the lead guitarist and singer, respectively. Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) is the mild-mannered bassist. Mick Shrimpton (R.J. Parnell) is the latest in the band’s gallery of ill-fated drummers.
As Tap begins, the group embarks on a stretch of gigs across the United States. It’s immediately clear the band’s popularity is on the decline: Their venues become smaller and less glamorous. Some are even canceled. Stage props and fixtures begin to fall apart. Ian Faith (Tony Hendra), the group’s redoubtable manager, attempts to put a positive spin on everything: “Their appeal is becoming more selective.”
As the tour continues on shaky footing, tensions in the band begin to rise. Jeanine (June Chadwick), David’s micromanaging girlfriend joins the group somewhere in the midwest. (“She can hear I’ve been eating too much sugar,” David announces proudly. “My larynx is fat.”) She’s their designated Yoko–the girlfriend who packs the group with dynamite and hands them a lit match. Nigel bristles at Jeanine’s bossiness and amateurish suggestions. David fumes that Nigel won’t accept Jeanine as a member of the family. Ian huffs at the idea of another manager onsite. As the band confronts its obsolescence, a sudden death by detonation might be the best thing for everybody.
I honestly don’t know where to start praising this movie. Tap is mostly improvised, and the jokes fly with such a frenzy that it takes several viewings to catch them all. So many great lines. So many great moments that jab a stake through the beating heart of rock’s puffy pretentiousness. (Prog rock gets it especially bad. Fans of Rush, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Yes might giggle the loudest at all the overblown lyrical imagery and elaborate stage designs.)
Tap‘s songtrack is another masterstroke. The band’s oeuvre is built with carefully constructed parodies that hew close to real rock titans: “Stonehenge” has a mandolin-tinged instrumental break that feels like something off of Led Zeppelin’s IV. (Tufnel responds to Page playing guitar with a violin bow by rubbing an actual violin across his guitar strings, as if it’s an animal carcass.) “Gimme Some Money” riffs on The Beatles “You Never Give Me Your Money.” And, of course, “Big Bottom” is taken right from Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls.” Tap‘s songs are so accurate, and the band’s playing so authentic, it’s no wonder audiences confused this with a real documentary.
If you’ve never seen Tap, I don’t want to say anymore and spoil its unvarnished brilliance. I will add it’s worth watching the entire film just to bask in the scene where Tufnel takes de Bergi on a tour of his music room. Some of his guitars have never been played; others we aren’t even worthy to look at. Of course, Tufnel has a half-stack that cranks up to 11–for when the band needs “that extra push off the cliff.” Guest plays Tufnel to perfection, combining cockiness and cheerful ignorance into an alloy of vacant goofiness: Cleverness and stupidity, refined.
82 min. R. Tubi.