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Spinal Tap is a loud--very loud--British hard rock band whose time has past but they don't quite know it yet. Setting off on a "comeback" tour of the United States, with a new album due for release, the quartet is followed by Marty DiBergi, a filmmaker out to capture the realities of a hard-working rock band on the road. He gets all he hoped for, and more--internal squabbles, struggles with management and record companies, interfering girlfriends, bungled tour dates, miserably bad stagecraft, overbearing fans, and some bizarre interviews with the band members. The group sets out with a lot of hope and energy, deals with multiple disappointments and disasters (such as drummers who spontaneously combust), breaks up, and comes back together again, always convinced of their importance and greatness in a time when no one seems to care any more.

Director: Rob Reiner
Producer: Karen Murphy
Screenplay: Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Rob Reiner
Cinematography: Peter Smokler
Editing: Ken Beyda, Kim Secrist
Production Design: Bryan Jones
Original Music: Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Rob Reiner, Harry Shearer
Cast: Rob Reiner (Marty DiBergi), Michael McKean (David St. Hubbins), Christopher Guest (Nigel Tufnel), Harry Shearer (Derek Smalls), June Chadwick (Jeanine).
C-83m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.

Why THIS IS SPINAL TAP is Essential

Although not a tremendous box office success at the time of its release in 1984, This Is Spinal Tap has become an enduringly popular comedy, a cult movie with a large following of fans who can recite much of the dialogue and even entire scenes, and a landmark in the emergence of a new genre that has come to be known as the mockumentary. Christopher Guest, one of the creators and stars of this picture, has made the form entirely his own, turning out funny, insightful, even poignant movies about dog show competitors, small-town community theater performers, has-been folk singers, and B movie actors in the decades since Spinal Tap first sang the praises of Stonehenge. For a funny little satire that nobody took to be a milestone in 1984, the film has had a far-reaching influence; the style it virtually created is now commonplace in movies of all genres and has even become a popular form for television comedy.

The fictional documentary was not entirely new when this movie was made. A documentary-like approach was used frequently in the late 1940s and 1950s for crime dramas and police procedurals to achieve a certain authenticity of detail. The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972) was a very low-budget attempt to create a horror story by using a documentary format to relate a tale of a mysterious Arkansas swamp creature. The most relevant antecedents to This Is Spinal Tap were films like A Hard Day's Night (1964), which purported to follow an actual band - the Beatles - through their lives and performances, and The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978), a spoof of the Beatles lives and careers. But the zany styles of the two--almost surreal in the first case, over-the-top satirical in the second--were clearly never meant to recreate reality in any way.

The true progenitor of This Is Spinal Tap is actually the rock documentary, movies like Don't Look Back (1967) about Bob Dylan's 1965 tour of England, Gimme Shelter (1970) about the ill-fated Rolling Stones Altamont concert, and The Last Waltz (1978), a film of the final concert given by The Band with a number of guest musicians. These were actual records of' tours, concerts, and backstage lives, although many critics say even these have heavy elements of fiction (especially the Dylan piece), as well as the manipulation and fact-bending that any documentary might display. The real reason This Is Spinal Tap works so well, why it is so funny and at the same time stirs feelings of pity and embarrassment, is that its creators were determined to make it as realistic as possible. The fact that many audiences thought they were seeing a film about a real band is a testament to how well that aim was achieved.

Anyone who has ever seen a "factual" film about rock musicians, or even brief interviews and band profiles, will recognize the elements here: backstage squabbles, power struggles, and petty jealousies; pretentious comments about the music and an over-inflated sense of importance; on-stage catastrophes and bungled personal appearance events; the hyper-adolescent sexuality of a bunch of overgrown boys on the loose; and the tendency toward hagiography on the part of those who produce-direct these types of documentaries. In the words of This Is Spinal Tap's fictional director Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner, who also happened to be the film's real director), the movie seeks to capture the "sights, sounds and smells of a hard-working rock band on the road," and that's exactly what it offers audiences, albeit in a skewed and satirical version. The remarkable thing is that Guest, Reiner, and co-creators Michael McKean and Harry Shearer achieved such a hilarious send-up of both the genre and the rock milieu with very little exaggeration. Maybe just a tad, of course, the equivalent of cranking an amp beyond its maximum of ten to the previously unheard of eleven...and that's one louder, isn't it?

by Rob Nixon

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