April 12, 2008 -- This 1984 satire has earned a cult following. People watched it over and over, reveling in all the details. They went to the Spinal Tap concerts to watch a band made up of actors who starred in the film. This film has been lavished with praise, some calling it the greatest satire ever filmed, wildly funny, etc. I'm sorry. I'm not part of the cult. I found it mildly funny, not a whole lot better than the best Christopher Guest mockumentary I'd seen before this, “Best in Show.” Guest has made a good career during the last decade by cranking out another similar mockumentary every three years. Starting with Spinal Tap, he went on to “Waiting For Guffman,” “Best in Show,” “A Mighty Wind” and “For Your Consideration.” I've seen all these except for Guffman, and each one is less funny than the one before. As I expected, Spinal Tap is the best of the bunch, but not by a lot.
“This is Spinal Tap” is directed by Rob Reiner, who has had a long and successful career as a director, producer, actor, writer and musician. He directed “Misery,” “A Few Good Men,” “When Harry Met Sally” and “The Bucket List” among many others. Tellingly, he was not involved in any of the other mockumentaries listed above that came after Spinal Tap. The formula for all these films is the same. All of them come off like real documentaries in nearly every respect, except that they are just a tiny bit sillier than the real thing. Spinal Tap relies heavily on the fact that most rock documentaries are pretty silly to begin with. All it takes is just a little exaggeration to push the documentary into the realm of satire. The film treads that very fine line between reality and satire. Some real rock band members have reportedly said Spinal Tap was so close to reality that it wasn't funny at all. According to a Wikipedia article, Tom Waits cried (presumably not from laughter) when he saw Spinal Tap. Eddie Van Halen failed to see any humor in the film because he said everything in the film had happened to him in real life. This kind of rigid, deadpan, close to reality style is not for all tastes. It has always been so. Noted playwright George S. Kaufman long ago famously said, “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.”
The movie follows the title-named English group through a disastrous American tour, including a military base. Dates are cancelled and crowds are small. The band's music (the actors composed and performed their own music) is actually pretty good. The lyrics are sexually exaggerated, but not as much as you might think, a Spinal Tap song about girls with big bottoms is cruder and less polished, but not all that different from Queen's hit song “Fat Bottomed Girls.”
In one funny scene, the band can't find its way through a maze of underground tunnels from the dressing room to the stage, which has also happened numerous times to other bands in real life. Band members make vapid philosophical comments about music and life. They fuss over the nature of hors d'oeuvres, bicker with each other and engage in other silliness. Of course, this kind of thing was all done better in a film that came much later, “Almost Famous.” Bickering over the “Smell the Glove” album cover in Spinal Tap was very similar to the bickering over t-shirts scene in “Almost Famous.” In general, give me “Almost Famous” or “The Commitments” any day over Spinal Tap. But then again, Spinal Tap came first. However, I did not see it until after I saw the other two. Maybe if I had seen Spinal Tap first, I'd be more impressed with it.
Spinal Tap was only a marginal commercial success when it was first released. Like many cult films, it gained most of its following after it left theaters and went into video release. The same is pretty much true of all the mockumentaries listed above, except that they all benefitted from a built-in audience of Spinal Tap fans because all those films are similar and they all featured the same core group of actors: Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Fred Willard, who were later joined by Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, John Michael Higgins, Jennifer Coolidge and Bob Balaban. This group of actors became like a touring company after the year 2000, staging a new mockumentary every three years. Spinal Tap, on the other hand, benefitted from a large, diverse group of actors, including some big stars in bit parts. Among the well-known actors in Spinal Tap are Billy Crystal, Dana Carvey, Howard Hesseman, Paul Shaffer, Anjelica Huston, Bruno Kirby, Patrick Macnee, Fran Drescher and Ed Begley Jr. In 2002, Spinal Tap was added to the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” That selection could easily be made into a satire. This film is funny, but not as funny as that. It rates a B.
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