Mar 20 2008

‘This Is Spinal Tap’ – Fake Rockers, Real Laughs

This Is Spinal Tap is bad music, bruised egos and brilliant comedy.

“It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.” — Nigel Tufnel

Rob Reiner walks that fine line in his hilarious mockumentary rockumentary, ostensibly the portrait of a has-been metal band resurrected from a well-deserved obscurity for a disastrous comeback tour.

Improv comedy veterans Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer don’t just play clueless heavy metal rockers and longtime bandmates David St. Hubbins (lead singer), Nigel Tufnel (lead guitar) and Derek Smalls (bass) offstage, they write and perform their own material with the preening assurance of would-be metal gods. Between the absurdly sexist and metaphorically confused lyrics, they fill the bombastic songs with heavy licks and aimless solos that screech into the stratosphere of self-indulgence.

The most inspired scenes take place away from the crowds, where the eternally adolescent rock stars stumble through creative tensions, girlfriend troubles, absurd touring mishaps, scraps with cynical record executives (Fran Drescher, whining with phony sincerity) and smarmy music promoters (an inspired Paul Shaffer cameo, pleading with the band, “Do me a favor, just kick my ass!”).

There had been countless documentary spoofs before “This Is Spinal Tap,” but this inspired put-on was the first to actually capture the texture and style of real documentary. The actors were let loose to riff on situations and Reiner’s skeleton crew shot it all on the fly. The results were cut into the classic rock doc form, a mix of live concert footage, behind-the-scenes glimpses of the tour (which falls apart before our eyes), introspective interviews with the blissfully unaware subjects and of course the historical survey. The band’s British Invasion knock-off beginnings and flower-power psychedelic detour are captured in pitch-perfect re-creations of mock-archival footage.

The parody was so dead-on that some audiences walked out believing it was all true, and why not? “This Is Spinal Tap” was the first mockumentary to parody an event that had yet to occur: David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel attempt to harmonize on “Heartbreak Hotel” while standing at Elvis’ grave. Who knew that U2 would do it for real years later in their Graceland visit in “Rattle and Hum”?

They are without a doubt the funniest faux band in the movies, and the film is a comedy classic. On a scale of 1 to 10, this is easily an 11.

Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.

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