'Spinal Tap' takes top spot in all-time rock movie list

Spoof documentary beats the film it was intended to parody. Anthony Barnes reports
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It was shot for a pittance by a novice director, featured a cast of unknowns who made it up on the spot, and mercilessly lampooned the music industry. Yet This is Spinal Tap has been named the greatest rock'n'roll movie of all time by readers of the music magazine Mojo.

It was shot for a pittance by a novice director, featured a cast of unknowns who made it up on the spot, and mercilessly lampooned the music industry. Yet This is Spinal Tap has been named the greatest rock'n'roll movie of all time by readers of the music magazine Mojo.

Spinal Tap - a mock documentary about a band past their sell-by date on a US tour - beat more earnest portraits such as the film it actually parodied, the Band's The Last Waltz, which was runner-up. Films featuring the Rolling Stones and the Beatles were also highly ranked in the list.

Spinal Tap was released to little fanfare in 1984 with some viewers convinced the bumbling dinosaurs- who had a knack of losing drummers in freak accidents - on screen were a genuine band. But word of mouth about the smartly observed film, which took a pop at bands such as Status Quo, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, spread and it became a sleeper hit.

It turned director Rob Reiner into a major Hollywood name. He later had hits with When Harry Met Sally ... and Misery, and the success of the concept led to the actors who starred as Spinal Tap becoming a real touring band, albeit tongue in cheek, which played the Reading Festival.

Actors Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer - the nucleus of the group - prepared several scenes with Reiner but then ad-libbed. At the end of filming, they had more than 40 hours of footage, which was edited down to a more manageable form.

To ease themselves into their characters the band played several shows, even supporting heavy metal band Iron Butterfly. With a deep sense of irony, Tap songs were later adopted by other bands - the hard rock act Soundgarden would regularly perform the track "Big Bottom", with its chorus of "Big bottom, big bottom, talk about mud flaps, my girl's got 'em".

Andrew Male, Mojo's deputy editor, said: "Spinal Tap is a classic that you always go back to and discover new things. It really captures the madness of being on the road and at times it is better than a real documentary. It does it with humour, but the people who have done it are not making fun of it. They clearly love rock, but they also see the ridiculousness of it."

A fine line between clever and stupid

So what's a "rock movie" when it's at home? An on-the-road documentary? A concert film? A work of fiction set in the rock environment? A musical biopic? A "rock opera"? An individual act's career-spanning retrospective? Or a mainstream movie in which a muso attempts to act?

Judging by the Mojo list, the answer is "most of the above". The outright winner, the sublime satire This is Spinal Tap, manages not only to tread "the fine line between clever and stupid", but also to combine elements of (almost) all of the genre's standard subcategories.

Martin Scorsese can claim not only to have directed the most-admired concert film in the canon - the Band's farewell concert - but also that his own reverent on-screen interviews with the principals inspired the character of Marty DiBergi, the "director" of the fictional Spinal Tap mock-doc.

Elsewhere, the Beatles weigh in with two fictionalised variants on their own lives: A Hard Day's Night and Help!. The stormy careers of the Clash and the Sex Pistols are respectively revisited in Don Letts's Westway to the World and Julien Temple's The Filth and the Fury. And Jamie Foxx's title-role evocation of Ray Charles is rightly acknowledged as the best on-screen portrayal of a great musician.

A pair of rock operas receive vastly different treatments: Franc Roddam's take on Pete Townshend's Quadrophenia is an old-style depiction of teen mods in the 1960s, while Alan Parker makes a five-course meal out of Pink Floyd's The Wall.

But it is only Gimme Shelter, the account of the Rolling Stones' 1969 US tour, that truly takes us to the dark heart of rock'n'roll. (Its fictional equivalent, Performance, falls outside Mojo's top 10.) Dominated by the on-camera killing of a young man at Altamont, it is the skeleton in rock's closet.

Charles Shaar Murray

1. This is Spinal Tap (1984) Spoof documentary of titular rock band.

2. The Last Waltz (1978) Final concert by the Band.

3. A Hard Day's Night (1964) Fictional day in the world of the Beatles.

4. Gimme Shelter (1970) Tragic Rolling Stones concert at Altamont.

5. Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982) Bob Geldof stars in Roger Waters's examination of a descent into madness.

6. Ray (2004) Jamie Foxx won an Oscar for the Ray Charles biopic.

7. The Filth and the Fury (2000) Rise and fall of the Sex Pistols.

8. Quadrophenia (1979) The Who soundtrack a tale of a young mod.

9. The Clash: Westway to the World (2000) Rise of the punk pioneers.

10. Help! (1965) More slapstick from the Beatles.

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