At 40 years old, “This Is Spinal Tap” remains a flawless satire of the rock music scene, with the ability to crank it up to 11.

Estimated read time 6 min read

Bands formed naturally, without the use of advertisements or flyers, are typically influenced by a combination of chemistry, creativity, and ennui.

A few individuals, typically males, often gather together and realize they have common interests. They bond over their similar tastes and then become eager to take action. Their playful activities turn into musical experimentation, which can then be presented as a performance for money. Many of the great musicians started off simply having fun with their friends, and that playful spirit evolved into making music. This is evident in the camaraderie exhibited in films like A Hard Day’s Night and the playful social media presence of Boygenius. This sense of closeness is essential for the magic that happens when musicians lock into a groove, connecting on a creative level. It is one of the most incredible phenomena on Earth.

A less popular version of this occurrence occurs when improvisational comedians reach a perfect level of synchronicity, understanding each other’s thoughts without speaking as they navigate a scene together. They also don’t let you forget the comparison; it’s a common belief that every comedian dreams of becoming a rock star, evident in their use of terms like “gigs” and the homemade DIY posters, and the occasional shared bill with their college-radio idols. Credit is due to Michael McKean and Christopher Guest for achieving both goals. Their most notable collaboration, This Is Spinal Tap, which premiered in theaters 40 years ago today, has been rightfully praised for its accurate portrayal of eras and genres. The parody songs are successful because they are written and mixed to sound identical to the real thing, but the film is also considered a classic because of the genuine bond between the band members. Beyond the exaggerated quotes, there lies a close-knit group of likeminded individuals, constantly trying to make each other laugh and inadvertently entertaining the rest of us.

Guest and McKean became acquainted as affluent young individuals from New York during their college years in the late 60s, their paths crossing due to a shared love for clever humor. Guest, born into a privileged family with ties to the British government, received formal training in playing the clarinet and mandolin. He also played the guitar with his childhood friend Arlo Guthrie and wrote spot-on parodies of Bob Dylan and James Taylor for the National Lampoon Radio Hour. McKean, brought up by one of the founders of Decca Records, honed his musical talents as a guitarist for the “Bach-rock” baroque pop group, The Left Banke. His skills led to a pivotal role on the popular show Laverne & Shirley, alongside his childhood friend David Lander. The success of their characters Lenny and Squiggy catapulted them to even greater fame with the release of a faux album as Lenny and the Squigtones. The album’s liner notes credited the fictional guitarist “Nigel Tufnel”, a name Guest would later use for a TV pilot he shot at the same time with director Rob Reiner and his friend Harry Shearer from the Los Angeles comedy troupe, the Credibility Gap.

The TV Show with the working title “The TV Show” did not end up being successful, even though it served as the foundation for Spinal Tap, a five-member group that would eventually become known as a ridiculously immature proto-hair-metal band. In his role as David St Hubbins, McKean reflects, “There is a fine line between foolishness and ingenuity,” capturing the unofficial purpose of the project. This group of sexist idiots – David and Nigel as the warring John and Paul, with Shearer playing the role of the peacemaking Ringo, and a rotating cast of continuously dying drummers – delivered clever bits of absurdity that were so deeply rooted in their own foolishness that they came back around to brilliance. They played with language in a playful manner, turning it into melodies and talking themselves into dead ends, as a reminder that they were improvising: “It’s like, how much darker can it get? And the answer is none. None…darker than none.”

A color image of a bearded man on left, man dressed as long-haired pop star on right, sitting and talking.View image in fullscreen

After the millennium, the winning strategy of gathering funny people and letting them do their thing would lead to the bloat and indulgence of the Apatow Company, a far cry from the rigor and economy of Reiner’s techniques. The mockumentary structure lent itself to setups and punchlines, each segment in its lean-and-mean 82-minute run time sketched along the path to the laugh. The lightweight maneuverability of Reiner’s handheld 16mm camera afforded spontaneity to his cast, allowing their riffing to open up and breathe. The bit players – Fran Drescher as publicist extraordinaire Bobbi Flekman, Fred Willard as a squaresville air force lieutenant, real-life bandleader Paul Shaffer as “the incompetent promoter Artie Fufkin” – seamlessly integrate themselves like great session musicians sitting in with the group for a number or two. The McKean-Guest-Shearer-Reiner brain trust sharing written-by credit never met a sight gag they didn’t like; there’s a faint hint of Wile E Coyote in the escalation of tools used to extricate Derek from a large amniotic egg that won’t open, a crescendo from pliers to blowtorch.

Spinal Tap’s journey from the top of the charts to opening for a puppet show embodies a common trajectory in the world of show business. The band experiences highs and lows, mirroring familiar tropes found in behind-the-scenes narratives, like the presence of a Yoko Ono-type girlfriend who exacerbates tensions within the band and a long-suffering manager who is pushed to his breaking point. The film parodies specific aspects of pop culture, with Spinal Tap’s shifts from Beatlemania-style performances to psychedelic flower power to hyper-masculine cock rock making them seem like unapologetic followers of trends. They share this trait with their spiritual successor, Dewey Cox. However, the film that most closely resembles Spinal Tap’s legacy is Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. Drawing on the strong bond between true friends, it serves as a cautionary tale about staying true to one’s roots in the industry. As director, Guest remained loyal to his group of eccentric performers, showcasing their improvisational skills. His breakthrough film, Waiting for Guffman, showcased yet another group of misfits united by their love for putting on a show, without any desire for fame or fortune. Ultimately, the driving force behind Spinal Tap’s journey is their genuine camaraderie, with the audience lucky enough to be invited into their inner circle.


You May Also Like

More From Author