Thursday, 17 March 2016

This Is Spinal Tap

When I am asked to compile a list of my favourite films of all time, This Is Spinal Tap always threatens to penetrate the higher reaches. It is not necessarily the "best" or the most profound, but it is right up there in terms of entertainment value and enjoyability.

Basically, This Is Spinal Tap, released in 1984, is presented as a documentary, or "rockumentary", following the fortunes of British heavy rock outfit Spinal Tap as they tour North America to promote their latest album. Numerous disasters and setbacks ensue, and these episodes form the basis for much of the comedy, and no little pathos.

I cannot really make up my mind why the picture is made in the style which it is.  Some of the "sloppiness" may be intentional, while some may even be a product of budget constraints.  Either way, many segments have a very gritty, "fly on the wall" character, either consciously or unconsciously drawing inspiration from some of the music documentaries of the past (D.A. Pennebaker's work springs to mind).  I also like the way that dialogue is delivered by the actors in an "untidy", ad-libbed manner. This adds realism, as does the editing.

The "amateurish" style is one of the factors which helps this picture to endure, whereas other similar efforts fall short by being excessively glossy or calculating. In addition to a certain innocence, a lot of elements in "Spinal Tap" conspired to engender a peculiar magic, the kind which defies straightforward explanation. Much has been made about the the cliches which the movie celebrates, but people forget that many of these cliches were popularized by the film itself.

A facet of This Is Spinal Tap which receives insufficient attention is the nature of the settings. Almost every scene is situated in a hotel room, concert venue, dressing room, airport or vehicle. This serves to illustrate the confined, claustrophobic and unreal world inhabited by rock musicians.

The acting by the main players has a naturalness which is a delight. The deadpan delivery is a key, especially at the funniest junctures. The more minor roles add much sparkle. Fran Drescher as Bobbi Flekman, and Paul Shaffer as Artie Fufkin really stand out. These characters are not stereotypes as such, but may be exaggerated conceptions of people who might have been around at the time.

Whilst according the cinematography and the acting due credit, it is the writing and the humour which really transports the film onto another level. Many lines and phrases have entered into the lexicon of popular culture, which is a tribute in itself. Moreover, many of the jokes and sketches are still fresh. I have viewed the film untold times, but still find myself laughing out loud.

The narrative manages to elicit sympathy, too, as Spinal Tap stumble from one misfortune to another. It is a little while before grim reality registers, and the downward spiral in the band's fortunes arrives almost imperceptibly. Gallows humour is mixed with humiliation, and desperate efforts to remedy the predicament (such as the "Stonehenge" sequence).

When I first saw this movie, many years ago, I recall being startled by the quality of the music. The songs, however, do not really stand up to the stresses of repeated listening and scrutiny, even if the lyrics remain hilarious, shedding none of their lustre.

Yes, the film satirizes the Neanderthal attitudes and pretentiousness of some rock musicians, but it also becomes a celebration of the absurdity and the energy of the genre. The running jokes about "drummers" and "the album cover" help to imbue the piece with some structure and continuity.

Viewers can probably discern references to certain real-life groups and artists, but a notable thing is that Spinal Tap can not be directly pigeon-holed and directly compared to such-and-such a band. There is a vaguely "Lennon and McCartney" dynamic in the relationship between David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel, but only vaguely. Half the fun is looking out for allusions, but the writing is sufficiently subtle to leave one guessing.

An endearing feature of the movie is the amount which is left unsaid or unexplained. There is plenty going on in various scenes, involving extras and so forth, and enigmatic lines are left hanging in the air.

Of the characters, Nigel Tufnel's persona is perhaps the most forcefully projected, his uncomplicated and naive dimness shining throughout. The others are maybe less easy to pin down. Tony Hendra, as the group's manager, gets some of the most interesting and substantial lines, although the character himself feels more like a 60s/70s managerial type.

It feels like the funny lines are packed in to the picture, even "under" the closing titles, which is a testimony to the amount of strong material which the writers had. This Is Spinal Tap remains fine entertainment, and retains its unique charm after all these years. Modern audiences might be nonplussed by the absence of slickness, but the accent is on creativity and content, and not the "packaging".

A wonderful film.

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