It’s such a privilege to review this classic for Forgotten Films’ 1984-a-Thon, a celebration of the many wonderful films released in 1984 (which – as well as being a landmark year for cinema – also happens to be the year of my birth). Not only that, but I was lucky enough to revisit it in a cinema (thanks, Golden Age!), always the best way to experience a film you love, especially a comedy.
Mockumentary is one of my favourite genres. Done well, it allows for parody (ranging from acerbic to affectionate) and hilarious comedy, all within a framework that is inherently satirical. It invites viewers to come along for a potentially ridiculous ride while granting them the comforts of familiar documentary tropes (even as, in many cases, those very tropes are themselves being sent up). Best of all, it’s almost always playful, having fun with long-established cinematic and televisual forms and conventions. No other genre so consistently and faithfully winks at its audience.
Over the past few years mockumentary has become mainstream and is now a standard format for television sitcoms (The Office, Modern Family and Parks & Recreation being the best-known examples). Decades ago things were different. When This Is Spinal Tap was released, there had only been a handful of similar films before it, and nothing quite like it. With the glut of mockumentaries available to us now, it’s hard to fully appreciate how casually groundbreaking it really was, and what a surprise it would have been for its audiences.Taking the ostensible form of a documentary about a British rock band on the verge of collapse as it embarks on a doomed US tour, the film walks the line between plausible and ridiculous perfectly. It’s filmed with all the rough edges of an actual doco; combined with the heavy use of improvisation, this creates a sense of verisimilitude which greatly bolsters the humour and satire. The fact that the music is all real (albeit largely written for the film), and some songs are performed almost in full, plays directly into this.
On the subject of the music, I must admit I’ve been listening to it for years and can call myself a Spinal Tap fan. Gimme Some Money and (Listen to the) Flower People are perfect parodies and catchy tunes, while Hell Hole and Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight are hilarious rock anthems that genuinely rock. There are a few duds, such as Heavy Duty and Sex Farm, but to be fair, the band is supposed to be terrible, so that’s kind of fitting.
The performances are excellent, particularly given all the improvisation. Michael McKean and Christopher Guest may get higher billing, and they’re both very funny, but to me Harry Shearer is the unsung hero of the film. It’s also fun to see Billy Crystal, Fran Drescher, Bruno Kirby and a barely recognisable (being so young) Anjelica Huston. I didn’t even notice Dana Carvey.To be blunt, This Is Spinal Tap is basically a sketch comedy idea stretched out to feature length. While that’s usually a recipe for disaster, in this case there’s enough material (effectively amounting to discrete sketches that get strung together), and so many other factors that make it good (acting, improvised dialogue with endless gags, great music, etc.), that it’s the exception that proves the rule.
Lastly, some recommendations. If you like This Is Spinal Tap, check out the many Christopher Guest mockumentaries that followed it (especially A Mighty Wind, which I personally like even more; that might have more to do with my love of folk music than its actual relative quality, but it does also feature what amounts to a Spinal Tap reunion). I’d also recommend Woody Allen’s Zelig, Peter Jackson’s Forgotten Silver, and most of all, Tim Robbins’ Bob Roberts (another mockumentary with music and satire at its core).