Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, and Christopher Guest in 'This Is Spinal Tap' (1984)
Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, and Christopher Guest in 'This Is Spinal Tap' (1984)
Stories & Ideas

Tue 04 Apr 2017

This is Spinal Tap: A seminal staple of the mockumentary

Film Pop culture Retrospective
Nick Bugeja
Nick Bugeja

Writer & Editor

Nick Bugeja explores the genre-defining legacy of the film that taught us to turn it up to 11

When Guns ‘n’ Roses took the stage in Melbourne this February, announcer "McBob" made a fatal error – throatily screaming out “Sydney” – which was met by vehement booing from the audience. Not an ideal way to begin the concert, especially when the band was already an hour late.

Early morning the following day, Slash apologised in a tweet saying: “Melbourne, thank you for an awesome fucking evening! Apologies for the Spinal Tap intro!”

The moment was indeed reminiscent of the accident-prone, idiotically unaware, and foolishly incompetent fictional band Spinal Tap. In particular, it was a moment where reality and the mockumentary film coalesced into something wonderful and absurd.

Spinal Tap didn’t first appear in Rob Reiner’s film This is Spinal Tap, but on the sketch comedy pilot The T.V. Show. Spinal Tap’s existence didn’t end with Reiner’s film either, with the fictional band appearing on SNL, creating actual albums (Break like the Wind, Back from the Dead), and even making stage appearances.

But Spinal Tap’s celebrity was most certainly drawn from This is Spinal Tap. The film is one of the earliest "mockumentarie", seemingly following the lead of The Rutles and Albert Brooks’s Real Life. Even though the genre was in its infancy, the critical, mainstream and commercial success of This is Spinal Tap has made the mockumentary an enduring feature of contemporary film and television.

Framed around the British heavy rock band’s tour of the USA, we get access to interviews conducted by Marty Di Bergi (director Rob Reiner), as well as footage of the band performing and the members speaking candidly. The band members, lead singer David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) and band manager Ian Faith (Tony Hendra) resemble a typical 80s rock band like Iron Maiden or Motley Crue well-enough. They have long hair, laissez-faire attitudes and uninhibited egos. Reiner makes sure we can see the rock star essence in these characters.

However, the film’s comedy lies in the slight exaggerations of the heavy rock world. This is Spinal Tap is at its best when the action is suspended between reality and ridiculousness. Derek Smalls’s remark during an interview displays this perfectly: “They're [David and Nigel] two distinct types of visionaries, it's like fire and ice, basically. I feel my role in the band is to be somewhere in the middle of that, kind of like lukewarm water.” While we recognise the rock star pretension, the implausible absurdity makes it hilarious. 

This kind of farce is present throughout This is Spinal Tap. Unlike most films that comprise a tightly-woven, modulated narrative, the film runs almost solely on the fuel of hyperbole. Traditional uses of narrative development and character are totally set aside in favour of bizarre scene-by-scene fun. Reiner’s reimagining of the formal elements of cinema through This is Spinal Tap makes it a constant delight.

Even the production aligns with the construction of the characters. Reiner uses fairly standard modes of editing and cinematography to create a sense of verisimilitude. Again, his nuanced tinkering with production instils the film with indelible satire. The camera pans and cuts to Di Bergi and the band when discussing how their second drummer died (by choking on the vomit of another) seriously enhances the ridiculousness of the scene. The panning allows us to see – in real time – the band members faux-agonising over their former band mate’s death, while the constant cuts conveys to us Di Bergi’s strange earnestness about the whole thing.

In fact, the production and cinematic characteristics employed in This is Spinal Tap have survived to this day. Without doubt, every mockumentary balances still, ‘sit-down’ interviews with raw footage shot with a handheld camera. The interviews are conducted to give us ‘insight’ into the creative and psychological processes of the band, while the footage is intended to show us a ‘real life’ rendering of the band’s interactions and performances. Unlike the sitcom, Reiner’s film is bereft of campy laugh tracks – permitting a realist varnish.

Sweeping, high-angle camera shots introduce us to the band’s gigs, paving the way for more individualised, close-up shots of the performers absorbed in their craft. There is a mix of shots focusing on the adrenaline-inducing performers and the participatory, pumped-up fans. It doesn’t take long to understand that Reiner intends This is Spinal Tap’s action to be in the cinematic framework of the rock documentary. The film’s humour doesn’t come from the form, but the manipulation of content within the form: Derek stuck in the pod onstage, the reveal of Nigel’s song ‘Lick My Love Pump’ and the band not being able to find the stage at one of their many performances. This is Spinal Tap thrives on the bastardisation and subversion of the rock documentary, surely influencing subsequent mockumentaries that adopt the tropes of workplace videos, political documentaries and other-related music documentaries.

Beyond, and courtesy of its mockery, This is Spinal Tap forces us to reconsider and reformulate our perception of the status of celebrity. It presents musicians as vacuous, indolent, hostile and spoilt (Nigel nearly flips out over miniature sandwiches). While we laugh at the way Reiner depicts Spinal Tap, we also come to question our deference to musicians: are they really worth as much praise as they receive? Do they deserve to be modern deities? Reiner forces us to laugh at contemporary culture and ourselves.

The mockumentary – at its best – uses and transcends comedy to comment on society. This is Spinal Tap, as one of the most prominent mockumentary films, has been used many times as the model for future iterations of the genre. At the very least, This is Spinal Tap has provided a template for future mockumentaries to take inspiration.

One of the more famous TV mockumentaries is The Office. It employs familiar caricatures you might encounter in a typical workplace: the overenthusiastic, inappropriate boss, the maladapted nutty salesman and the sweet receptionist. The documentary realism that captures every sales pitch, argument, hug, commiseration and act of friendship ensures that the goings on in the office are not divorced from reality, but rather a messy, hyper-stylised rendering of it. The Office is a kind of celebration of the friendships and romances that take place in an otherwise rigidly capitalist, dreary place. It teaches us to value human relationships. Although we laugh at the characters, such as David Brent (Ricky Gervais), we also learn to sympathise with them.

The 2010 mockumentary I’m Still Here is a film after the heart of This is Spinal Tap. Prior to its release, its star, Joaquin Phoenix pretended that he was quitting acting to become a rapper. His good looks were gone, replaced by long dishevelled hair and thick facial hair. Whether people believed it or not wasn’t the point, I’m Still Here was a acutely self-aware film concerned with our unhealthy obsession with celebrity – an unofficial sequel to This is Spinal Tap.

Ultimately, the mockumentary has become an indispensable feature of contemporary film and TV. Its capacity for comedy and social insight has reached a point of uniqueness – sustained by unforeseen success. And This is Spinal Tap was the catalyst of this, by setting out a framework in which comedy, human relationships and critiques of conventions could thrive. Its approach to production and story development is certainly evident in subsequent mockumentaries. In a way, This is Spinal Tap legitimised the whole mockumentary genre.

This is Spinal Tap screened on Thursday 19 April 2017 for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival