Sad But True
Sixteen years ago, a young filmmaker named Marti DiBergi set out to capture, in his words, “the sights, the sounds, and the smells” of a workhorse British rock band named Spinal Tap. With a small crew by his side, Marti filmed the group during their first U.S. tour in six years. The result of Marti’s vision is a documentary that is humorous, shocking, and completely made-up. This Is Spinal Tap is actually Rob Reiner’s directorial debut and is the film responsible for introducing mainstream American audiences to the “mockumentary” (or mock documentary).
The movie is presented much like a typical concert film, along the lines of U2’s Rattle and Hum or Madonna’s Truth or Dare. Concert highlights are mixed with band interviews and glimpses into the lives of the band members backstage and on the road. But while most concert films capture their worthy subjects at the peak of their popularity or during a triumphant re-union tour, This Is Spinal Tap presents us with a second-rate band made up of aging members who are desperately trying to cling onto what little fame they used to have.
This concept provides a wealth of comic potential that Rob Reiner and the Spinal Tap boys (Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, R.J. Parnell, and David Kaff) effectively tap into, such as the scene in which Nigel Tufnel (Guest) proudly displays the band’s instruments and equipment, which include a guitar so special it can never be looked at, let alone played, and a Marshall amplifier that “...goes to 11” whenever the band needs a little extra kick. Other humorous scenes include the band circling the bowels of the Cleveland Ampitheatre’s boiler room after losing their way to the stage, and the Stonehenge debacle, which involves a hilariously underwhelming 18-inch recreation of the famous structure, on stage alongside the band. Such absurd moments, combined with memorable quotes, such as “Dozens of people spontaneously combust each year, it’s just not that widely reported,” and gleefully trashy songs like “Sex Farm,” “Hellhole,” and “Big Bottom” (“Talk about mudflaps, my girl’s got ‘em”) helped land this film on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Comedies list.
Now, with the theatrical re-release (and Collector’s Edition DVD release) of This Is Spinal Tap, a new generation of moviegoers have the chance to experience this cult favorite. But will teenage America fork over their cash to watch a film featuring a form of music that died in the ‘80s? Doubtful. Spinal Tap’s brand of death metal/glam rock has deteriorated into a distant memory that survives only in jokes about hairspray, K-Tel record offers, and the occasional nostalgia tour by Iron Maiden, Posion, Whitesnake, or countless other bands that no one under the age of 21 remembers. So why re-release This Is Spinal Tap at the beginning of the 21st century, when bands made up of long-haired guys in spandex have largely disappeared, and the music market is dominated by boy bands, teenage divas, and Latin pop stars? Does Spinal Tap have anything to offer now?
Sure, it’s still funny to watch a group of gifted comic actors feign British accents and bogus rock and roll attitudes and cliches, but is being funny enough to merit a re-release sixteen years after the film’s debut? Surely there are any number of comedies from the ‘80s that are considered more amusing than This Is Spinal Tap. And when you look at other films that have been re-released, such as The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, and Grease, it’s easier to see the cross-generational appeal of those films. The Wizard of Oz engages our childhood fantasies with its depiction of the dream-like Oz and all its inhabitants. Star Wars presents a storybook mythology complete with knights, magic, and even a damsel in distress. And Grease gives us a nostalgic look at the 50s through its catchy musical numbers and boy-meets-girl storyline. Each of these films has an age-resistant quality that enables it to appear fresh to audiences too young to remember it during its initial run. This Is Spinal Tap doesn’t have this. What it does have is sadness. I don’t mean it is sad like a tearjerker. This Is Spinal Tap is a comedy, but its consideration of the transience of fame and the band members’ denial is ineffably and movingly sad. It’s also funny, of course: it makes us laugh at the band even as we feel sorry for them.
“Their appeal is becoming more selective,” says the band’s manager, Ian Faith (Hendra), explaining to Marti DiBergi (Reiner) why the band has been downgraded to performing in increasingly smaller venues, and is forced to endure the cancellation of several shows—thus proving he suffers from the same degree of denial afflicting the band. And when the group plays the last show of their U.S. tour at a theme park, billed under a puppet show, we realize that the band has sunk just about as low as they can go.
But no single moment in This Is Spinal Tap communicates this sense of sadness like the scene in which the band gathers around a radio in a hotel room to listen to one of their old tunes (which dates back to their pre-Spinal Tap days when they were called “The Thamesmen”). When the song ends, the DJ says: “...the band reformed as Spinal Tap, had a couple of hits, and currently resides in the ‘Where are now?’ file.” This is the only time in the film when the group is confronted with their own failure. They can justify poor record sales, dwindling attendance, and second billing, but they have no response to the DJ’s comment. They can only switch the radio off, maintain a stiff upper lip, and press on.
In viewing this film again (I hadn’t seen it in about seven years), I couldn’t help but draw a comparison between the blokes in Spinal Tap and Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard. Granted, the Spinal Tap boys aren’t monstrous like Norma (and they don’t kill anyone), but they exhibit the same delusional traits as the faded movie star. Fame is a fickle friend, and it rarely visits for long. The boy bands, teenage divas, and Latin stars of today will someday go the way of Spinal Tap, and their fans will find some new sensation to love. Spinal Tap refuses to recognize this truth: they’re still ready for their close-up, but the camera has long since trained its eye on someone else.