Spinal Tap: return of the parody animals

This Is Spinal Tap (15) | Director: Rob Reiner | Christopher Guest, Michael Mckean and Harry Shearer | 82 Mins
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The Big Picture

The Big Picture

May I briefly reminisce? One summer back in the Eighties I became suddenly and irretrievably obsessed with a movie. My friends were obsessed with it too. A bunch of us would meet three or four nights a week, and at closing time we'd end up back in someone's living room to watch a battered old VHS on which a friend had scrawled a simple injunction: NEVER WIPE. We took this very seriously, for on that tape was recorded what we believed was the funniest movie of all time. We'd missed its original release in 1984, but we were making up for it now.

Please understand: this wasn't just something that made us laugh. It actually furnished us with a whole private language. Every line became a catchphrase. We might interrogate an olive with the words, "Who's in here? No one!" We'd sing "Heartbreak Hotel" in part-harmony until someone would snap "Same key". We'd talk about the fine line between "clever... and stupid", or how something might be "none more black", or the possibility of dying in a bizarre gardening accident. Someone even compiled a hundred quiz questions about the movie. It must have been unutterably boring to outsiders; it may even have been boring to people who knew what we were talking about. But we couldn't help it. Like I said, we were obsessed.

The name of the movie was, of course, This Is Spinal Tap, and watching it again this week not only reconnected me with a fond tranche of my past but reminded me why I loved it so much in the first place. Rob Reiner's spoof "rockumentary" never sounded particularly promising, largely because its subject, British heavy metal, had already become a parody of itself. The musical possibilities Deep Purple and Black Sabbath had pioneered from the late Sixties had long degenerated into hideous overkill: bombastic guitar solos, juvenile posturing and the tightest Spandex trousers known to man. How could you make fun of something self-evidently absurd? Reiner succeeded for two reasons: first, because he paid attention to detail, and second, because he knew not to overdo it. The whole thing is played with such a straight face that at times you can almost convince yourself that Spinal Tap are has-been hard rockers, and that this really is the US tour on which they so painfully and spectacularly combust.

Part of the credit goes to Reiner himself, who directs and plays the lifelong Tap fan and documentarist Marty DiBergi, tickled to be on tour with the band yet always alert with his camera for the tense, unguarded moments we hope to see in fly-on-the-wall film-making. (It says much about their self-awareness that at no point does any band member feel inclined to stop him filming.) The balance he maintains between improvisation and calculation is illustrated wonderfully in an early sequence in which DiBergi interviews the band sitting in a garden; the talk, which overlaps between lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), singer David St.Hubbins (Michael McKean) and bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer), focuses upon their early years as a group, and the strange tendency of their drummers to die untimely deaths - one choked on somebody else's vomit, but the case had to be left unsolved because, as Nigel points out, "you can't really dust for vomit".

Yet the improvised brilliance of the line is backed up by faux-footage of the band's progress through Sixties mop-toppery and psychedelia, followed by a selection of the unkinder press reviews for previous albums such as Intravenus DeMilo and Shark Sandwich ("You can't print that!"). One suspects that a great deal of effort has been put into making this look effortless.

What elevates the film to greatness, however, is surely the astonishing performances of its central trio. As Nigel, Christopher Guest catches the perfect combination of gormlessness and tongue-pulling enthusiasm, and gets many of the most famous scenes, confusing "sexy" and "sexist", playing his tender piano piece in D minor ("the saddest of all keys") and, of course, explaining to DiBergi how the amplifiers go to 11. His petulance when David's meddlesome girlfriend Jeanine (imagine an astrology-obsessed Bonnie Tyler) tries to take over managing the band just about encapsulates what lurks behind that classic rock phrase "personal and musical differences".

Harry Shearer, now more famous as the voice of Montgomery Burns, Smithers et al in The Simpsons, is the movie's dark horse, and Derek Smalls' philosophical pondering of the band's internal dynamic constitutes another of the script's magnificently silly rambles: "David and Nigel, they're like fire and ice. I feel my place in the band is something between, like... lukewarm water." It was also a touch of genius for him to be seen smoking a pipe.

But the honours, I think, must go to Michael McKean as David St.Hubbins, perhaps because his impersonation of the self-deluding rock star is the most convincing, and therefore the most hilarious, of all. His look of disbelief when he learns that rival rockers Duke Fame have sold out the EnormoDome in the very city where Tap's own gig has just been cancelled is one of many moments when McKean's performance seems closer to behaving than acting. Similarly, when he explains to DiBergi that there was actually a "St.Hubbins" ("He was the patron saint of quality footwear"), the look of innocent pride that spreads over his face is priceless.

In the years since This Is Spinal Tap, spoof has had a mixed reputation (for every Alan Partridge there's been one too many versions of Bad News), suggesting how difficult a form it is to master. The band itself revealed the film as a one-off when they played live in the UK in the mid-Nineties; the joke was on us this time, because however spot-on the musical parodies may have been, they meant nothing outside the context of the film. Now it's back. If you've seen it, you'll understand the fuss; if you haven't, I envy you the experience.