this is spinal tap

‘This Is Spinal Tap’ Turns the Volume All the Way Up to 40

The 1984 rockumentary, or mockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap is a prophetic parody where one can laugh about, laugh at, and be laughed at all at the same time.

This Is Spinal Tap
Rob Reiner
Embassy Pictures
2 March 1984

“I’m really influenced by Mozart and Bach, and it’s sort of in between those, really,” says guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) of the legendary, but fictitious, but now really legendary rock band Spinal Tap when asked about his lovely piano piece in D minor, the saddest of all keys. “It’s like a Mach piece, really.”

For a certain demographic—and that would include me—This Is Spinal Tap, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in March 2024, is the funniest movie of all time. Every line is memorable. Every line is quotable. As I watched the film yet again, my notes were practically a transcription of the film. Every line is my favorite line.

In case you’re not a member of that certain demographic, This Is Spinal Tap—82 minutes, including jokes during the credits—is a fake documentary about a fake hard rock band’s attempted comeback. Filmmaker Mary Di Bergi, played by real-life director Rob Reiner, post-All In the Family acting, pre-Stand by Me, Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, and other directorial hits—calls his film a “rockumentary”. But now, 40 years in, we understand it as a mockumentary. It’s like a Mach piece, really.

This Is Spinal Tap wasn’t the first mockumentary, but it popularized the concept, cementing the genre in the popular consciousness. It would be decades before The Office, Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, and more catch up. Meanwhile, it was also already parodying the rock band’s second act, which would become the staple of every VH1 Behind the Music episode starting in 1997. In an outtake that I wish were in the film, David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) explains, “It’s not the farewell tour. It’s sort of like a comeback farewell tour.” Ozzy Osbourne, Kiss, and Mötley Crüe could not have put it better or worse.

This Is Spinal Tap wasn’t just prescient in form. Even in 1984, it seemed to be chronicling the decline of the hard rock era. Instead, it foreshadowed much of what was to come:

  • The opening scene interviews goofy, clueless Spinal Tap fans outside a concert two years before John Heyn and Jeff Kurlik’s real documentary from 1986, Heavy Metal Parking Lot.

  • This Is Spinal Tap is already calling out sexism in rock. Polymer Records’ Bobbi Flekman (Fran Drescher, one of the film’s many amazing cameos) condemns the band’s proposed Smell the Glove album cover, saying, “It’s 1982, get out of the ‘60s. We don’t have this mentality anymore.”

    She’s referring to the “greased, naked woman on all fours, with a dog collar around her neck, and a leash, and a man’s arm holding onto the leash, and pushing a black glove in her face to sniff it.” Nevertheless, even after This Is Spinal Tap, Guns N’ Roses, Buckcherry, the Scorpions, the Black Crows, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Bon Jovi would propose, and, in most cases, issue, album covers that would have had Nigel Tufnel asking, “What’s wrong with being sexy?”

  • The fictitious Spinal Tap band holds a pilgrimage to Elvis Presley’s grave in Graceland. Elvis died in 1977, but his secular canonization was still underway in 1984.

  • Spinal Tap’s song “Heavy Duty”—using the most juvenile pun imaginable—coincides with and is funnier than Judas Priest’s song of the same name in 1984. Spinal Tap’s song “Rock and Roll Creation” almost coincides with Kiss’s lyrically similar “And on the 8th Day” (1983) and is not just a funnier song but a better song. Spinal Tap’s song “Big Bottom” was about big bottoms years before Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”. It, too, is also funnier and better.

  • On stage, Spinal Tap brings out dwarfs to dance during their song “Stonehenge.” Around the same time, in 1983, Ozzy Osbourne also had a little person onstage with him; Kid Rock would bring a one onstage with him much later.

  • A seemingly throwaway line, “Hello Cleveland!”—shouted by bassist Derek Smalls (a pre-Simpsons Harry Shearer) as the band is lost backstage—took on a life of its own, turning into a catchphrase, the name of a record label, a permutation for the intro to That 70s Show, and eventually a cliché. Spinal Tap never actually finds the stage.

  • Bowing his guitar with a violin while kicking a second guitar on a stand, Nigel Tufnel stops midsolo to tune said violin amidst the feedback and cacophony. It’s my favorite moment in This Is Spinal Tap, puncturing every metal guitarist’s pretensions. Metal bands would continue to feature extended guitar solos for the rest of the ;80s and also forever.

  • More best-of-the-80s cameos in This Is Spinal Tap: a pre-When Harry Met Sally Bruno Kirby. Ed Begley, Jr. A pre-fame Billy Crystal as a mime waiter (“Mime is money!”), and an uncredited, non-speaking role for Dana Carvey, although, in fairness, he’s also a mime. Howard Hesseman, Paul Shaffer, Anjelica Huston, and Fred Willard appear.

  • The ending’s deus ex machina of the Big in Japan tour, an idea so common today that the phrase has its own Wikipedia entry

  • Is Metallica’s Black Album parodying Spinal Tap’s Black Album, which is sort of parodying the Beatles’ White Album? We’re in too deep.

This Is Spinal Tap’s brilliance is that it manages to be two things simultaneously and equally. First, it is a comedy, a parody, sure, yes, of course. The film mocks Spinal Tap’s cluelessness, even as their cluelessness is almost identical to many real bands’ real cluelessness. The homages are obvious: Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, and the Rolling Stones. But arguably, mainly, they’re the Beatles, if the Beatles had only middling success and went on to reinvent themselves every few years until they ended up hard rock by default. Sacha Gervasi’s Anvil! The Story of Anvil, about a real heavy metal band attempting a real comeback, wouldn’t come out until 2008. Everyone in the world would compare it to This Is Spinal Tap.

McKean’s David St. Hubbins, “lead guitar”, and Guest’s Nigel Tufnel, “lead guitar” (one of their subtler musician jokes, along with their matching cold sores, which would remain unremarked upon), using wonderful fake English accents, recreate and perfect the comic archetype of best bros who are both dumb, but one is noticeably dumber. It’s a grand comic tradition emblemized by, of course, Peter Farrelly’s 1994 comedy, Dumb and Dumber, but it includes laureates such as Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Ralph and Ed, Fred and Barney, Beavis and Butthead, SpongeBob and Patrick, Mordechai and Rigby (“Regular Show”), and maybe The Man with the Yellow Hat and Curious George.

The pair gets even funnier in combination with the smarter-than-they-are but overly-earnest Di Bergi and additional archetypes of the angry English manager (Tony Hendra), the meddling girlfriend (June Chadwick), and the amusing sidemen (real musicians R.J. Parnell as drummer Mick Shrimpton and David Kaff as keyboardist Viv Savage), which somehow leads to greater comedy and sympathy than just two dumb guys.

There’s also slapstick. All of the on-stage songs feature sight gags and prop comedy. “Big Bottom”’s ass slapping with bass headstocks. “Rock and Roll Creation”’s malfunctioning pods. Nigel, who is unable to get up after leaning too far back during the solo in “Hell Hole” just after Ian, their manager, calls him a professional. And, of course, the 18” instead of 18’ Stonehenge fiasco, “that was,” as David shouts, “in danger of being crushed by a dwarf.” And there are actual punch lines, too. The name of that lovely Mach piece is revealed to be Lick My Love Pump.

So yes, This Is Spinal Tap makes fun of its musicians and musicians in general. It makes fun of music, and this kind of music specifically. But here’s the second thing about this film. The music is good. Really good. “Stonehenge” is a real banger, as the kids would not say for decades to come. Why didn’t a real band ever think to have an all-bass / no guitar rock song called “Big Bottom”?

The instruments—borrowed from the legendary Norman’s Rare Guitars—are spectacular. Les Pauls. Flying V’s. BC Richs. Every guitarist drools every time during Nigel’s gear. I wouldn’t want anyone to look at those instruments too closely, either. The outfits, both on and off stage, are fantastic. The stage sets are fantastic. The cold sores are fantastic.

The characters are supposed to be dumb, sure, but This Is Spinal Tap is smart. But it’s also dumb, and that’s great, too. The band is clueless yet sympathetic, likable, loveable, and relatable, even by musicians, especially by musicians. Even their most horrendous lyrics—and I propose “You’re sweet but you’re just four feet / And you still got your baby teeth / You’re too young and I’m too well hung / Tonight, I’m gonna rock you” as their most horrendous lyrics—cut deeper and more cleanly through, say, Kiss’ “Christine Sixteen” or Ted Nugent’s “Jailbait” than any handwringing can.

Spinal Tap doesn’t seem mean-spirited, and it doesn’t feel mean-spirited to laugh at this fake band. Hence, all the quoting. Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap comes with and from love. Nigel doesn’t know the difference between sexy and sexist, but we do. Or maybe we don’t. Ted Nugent still doesn’t.

We know that Nigel doesn’t understand that adding 11s across the Marshall amplifier’s faceplate in the iconic “These go to 11” scene doesn’t make an amplifier louder. Or maybe we don’t. It’s still funny. But at the same time, the 11 amp is wondrous, spectacular, majestic, and absolutely rockin’. I wanted it. Everyone wanted it. I have a “These Go to 11” tee shirt. I also own Nigel’s green skeleton tee shirt. It is medically accurate, and yes, my skeleton would be green. I cut the sleeves off both. I wear them on stage with my ‘80s hard rock tribute band. This Is Spinal Tap is the perfect in-joke, where one can laugh, laugh at, and be laughed at all at the same time. And one doesn’t even need to be in the in-group.

After the “Stonehenge” performance debacle, David St. Hubbins complains, “It’s not pleasant to be part of a comedy onstage. Backstage, perhaps it was very amusing.” This Is Spinal Tap gives us both the onstage inadvertent (but, of course, really entirely advertent) comedy and the backstage amusement. 

Many people didn’t realize Spinal Tap wasn’t a real band when the film came out. As it happens, my father was one of them. He was in good company. Ozzy Osbourne thought they were real, too. “When ‘Spinal Tap’ initially came out,” Rob Reiner said, “everybody thought it was a real band.” They weren’t real, in the sense that their story was invented, along with the characters’ names, personalities, and accents.

However, in another sense, weren’t they a real band? They really wrote the songs. They really played the instruments. That’s two things that plenty of other “real” bands don’t do. Even though the credits reveal that the band is fictional—“And there’s no Easter Bunny, either!”—people believed otherwise. Nigel Tufnel did an interview in character in Guitar Player magazine’s October 1984 issue, which my father read. When I told him that they weren’t real, he said he thought they were really playing. Of course, they were.

I was a little too young, although I don’t think I still had my baby teeth, to see This Is Spinal Tap in a movie theater in 1984. But like many others, I saw it on VHS a year or so later, just as I was getting into heavy metal myself. This Is Spinal Tap comes to life in repeated viewings, so its release at the dawn of the VCR era was fortuitous. Looking back, the film should have been the end of hard rock. How could the genre come back from this? But the effect was the opposite: watching it only made me, and maybe everyone, love hard rock more.

As it turns out, all the best rock movies are about fake musicians anyway. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007). Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016). Girls5eva (2021-2024; television but still counts). I would take any of them over The Song Remains the Same (1976), Madonna: Truth or Dare­ (1991), or It Might Get Loud (2008).

And now, 40 years since This Is Spinal Tap was released, there’s a planned sequel. Bruno Kirby’s limo driver laments that, compared with Frank Sinatra, Spinal Tap is a passing thing, a fad. Were they? We see Spinal Tap in their Thamesmen incarnation, changing styles from early Beatles to late Beatles to eventual hard rock, a perfect vehicle for additional genre spoofs. But does it also indicate that Spinal Tap will chase whatever they think is popular? Is “Jazz Odyssey” or even David’s prospective musical, “Saucy Jack” (based on the life of Jack the Ripper and possibly my favorite low-key joke in the whole film), indicative of a deeper musical insecurity?

I hope so. I want nothing more than to see the sequel to This Is Spinal Tape take David, Nigel, and Derek through every rock trend that came after 1984: rap-rock, grunge, and alternative. I want them to work with DJs. I want them to use a drum machine, which, of course, will die on them. I want to see Spinal Tap respond to Autotune and Pro Tools when, in they could barely use a wireless or, for that matter, find the stage.

And I have a name for the sequel: Not Spinal Tap 2. Spinal Tap 11.

Marty, if you’re reading this, you can have it. I’m not Maching.