A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1984: Just a Bunch of Working Stiffs

THIS IS SPINAL TAP (dir. Rob Reiner)

Moving into double digits with this project, I can see a few patterns emerging. One of these is that there are a couple of situations where I’m nervous to do the writeup. If it’s a widely-loved movie that I’m not so crazy about, I get nervous, because I feel like I really have to make my case if I’m going to be critical, or I’m going to piss people off or look like an idiot. Conversely, if it’s a movie that I absolutely love, I get nervous because I don’t want to just gush, because I can’t be objective. I might piss people off or look like an idiot.

Because yeah. I love This Is Spinal Tap. I love it more than most other movies that I’d say I love. It’s an absolute pantheon movie, one of those handful where I feel like it makes some sense to view my life through a before-I-saw-this/after-I-saw-this lens. I love music so much that sometimes it makes me wonder about my own sanity; I think I first saw This Is Spinal Tap at about the time this truth about my brain was making itself known to me. This Is Spinal Tap is magical because it manages to simultaneously be insanely funny while also encompassing a world of truth about music, especially rock music, double especially the world of rock music in the late 20th century as that artistic era started to move into its baroque phase.

How great is Nigel’s shirt, though?

Let’s not kid ourselves: music is a little absurd on several levels, if you step back and look; and so is our love for it. What is music, really? It’s air vibrating in specific patterns. That’s it. To love music is to have really strong opinions about how you want the air around you to vibrate. That, I submit, is a pretty absurd foundation on which to build.

But then, to go from there. The music industry that grew up in the 20th century after the maturation of recording technology was awfully absurd. Even setting aside the whole vibrating-air, business, you have an entire industry built around tricking musicians into signing ridiculously exploitative contracts that stick them with the bill for recording albums while guaranteeing that everyone involved on the business side will get paid no matter what. You have giant marketing arms—all of whom, again, are more guaranteed to get paid than the people who made the music are—aimed at convincing huge numbers of teens to buy the music. You had mass-communication networks, both all-audio and audio-video, existing just to get the music out there, usually with some skullduggery where those marketing people try to influence what music gets played where. And in the middle of this, you had musicians, some of whom were thoughtful artists with stuff to say, and some of whom were just not that bright and out to rock, traveling around on busses to put on the same big-spectacle show every night, trying to make it seem fresh and spontaneous.

And only some of that makes it directly into Spinal Tap, but all of it’s there as the soil the whole thing grew out of. This Is Spinal Tap is deeply silly, but it’s reflecting a deeply silly phenomenon. I don’t think it’s an accident that so many real-world bands talk about how closely Spinal Tap mirrors their actual experience. Wikipedia has an entire multi-paragraph section of musicians talking about how the movie feels ripped from their lives (except for Stephen Tyler, who didn’t get it). The documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil notoriously comes across as nearly identical despite being, y’know, not a comedy.

Part of what’s going on with This Is Spinal Tap is the (enormously talented) cast plays the entire thing completely straight. Christopher Guest’s entire career pivoted, I think, on his ability to inhabit Nigel Tufnel and say and do absolutely ridiculous things with absolutely no mugging; there’s a reason that the “this amp goes up to 11” bit has such power as a metaphor for circular conversations with people at work.* ** McKean plays David St. Hubbins mostly straight, too, although St. Hubbins does somehow come across as a much sillier man. Rob Reiner mugs it up a bunch, but in a way that works; he feels like a glad-handy bullshitter with the intensity turned up juuuuust a bit. On recent watches, I’ve felt like there’s less for Harry Shearer to do than the others, but he has his moments; Derek Smalls’ semitriumphant fist-pump in the malfunctioning-pod scene is a highlight of the movie.

*In fact, I think my new central theory of why This Is Spinal Tap rules as hard as it does is that so much of the movie’s action comes down to people of different levels of reasonability dealing with on-the-job situations that are completely insane, and this is an extremely universal trope, whether the job in question happens to be heavy metal or health care administration. The film’s many gut-busting gags all grow out of people just trying to gut their way through weird workaday shit that life in the music industry throws at them.

**OK, but also: look me in the eye and tell me that there’s more than the barest degree of difference between Nigel Tufnel and Stephen Tyler in terms of being a ridiculous person. David St. Hubbins is a more grounded person than any actual human being who has ever been a member of Motley Crue.

If Charlie Brown were in a band, he’d be in Spinal Tap

Another of the little delights of This Is Spinal Tap is the buffet of guest stars who pop in for a scene or two and spice things up. Billy Crystal, in costume as a catering mime, irritatedly saying “mime is money” is easily the funniest he’s ever been on camera. Ditto Paul Shaffer demanding that someone kick his ass for being a bad A&R man. Howard Hesseman at his Hessemanist. Or, best of all, Bruno Kirby’s limo driver who just wants to talk about Frank Sinatra. When I was younger, I was annoyed by Fran Drescher’s label flack; now I think she’s a key part of the machinery of the movie and I think it’s funny as hell that she revived the character for an episode of The Nanny.

From the perspective of 2024, I also think This Is Spinal Tap pointed the way forward for a lot of filmmakers in a way that wasn’t apparent at all at the time. It’s a famously low-budget production, with the city of Los Angeles standing in for the entire country, with the cast driving around and improvising their parts in front of handheld cameras and then incorporating that into the overall aesthetic of the piece. A couple of decades later, ubiquitous digital cameras and editing software and the existence of YouTube meant that something approaching this model was attainable for everybody; this became one of the onramps into the industry for ambitious young filmmakers. And there’s a symmetry there that I love: as absurd as music is, one of the things that’s great about it is that anybody can pick up a guitar and access the joy of making it; I love that a movie that lovingly mocks the music world also accidentally modeled a similarly populist way to make movies.

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