It started out as a parody on rock docs at the time, but then This Is Spinal Tap became one of the most well-known mockumentaries of recent memory. The film triumphs in embodying rock-doc clichés: over-the-top performances, artists taking themselves way too seriously, heated conflicts between band members and the studio, etc. It is presented in a way that is funny and relevant, even today, after three decades.
These tropes are embodied by the titular band, Spinal Tap, whose talent (or lack thereof) is overshadowed by their pretension. They’re hacks, possessing no distinct sound or artistic integrity, as they hop from one popular music trend to the next; from early rock’n’roll to psychedelia and finally, heavy metal. Their music, though passable, holds no meaning beyond its surface level.
The most prevalent flaw for these characters are their egos. The band is so in love with themselves that they’re completely ignorant of their current reality. Their ticket sales are failing, their supposed comeback tour has been cancelled at one venue after another, and their new album got banned from stores because of its outrageously sexist cover art. Not to mention, the band’s past drummers have had a history of dying. From spontaneous combustion to choking on vomit (not necessarily their own), the position is apparently cursed.
Reality has always been Spinal Tap’s least concern. Their obsession with personal image and musical “experimentation” has made them completely blind to the truth of their situation. To this reviewer, it is their lack of self-awareness that makes the film so funny. From one hilarious sequence to another, the band continuously avoids looking at reality, living in the delusion that they are the kings of rock’n’roll. Spinal Tap’s performances, shown between scenes of dialogue, detail how the illusion is gradually breaking, until one mishap involving a Stonehenge stage prop acts as the last straw.
Witnessing, and recording it all is filmmaker Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner), the only sane human being in the main cast, who introduces us to Spinal Tap’s extremely alien world of Rock’n’Roll. Marty miraculously stays calm and collected as he points his camera to every altercation, mostly those between Tap’s two core members, David (Michael McKean) and Nigel (Christopher Guest), two visionaries of equal incompetence. Through his interviews, the band members reveal themselves to be more human than the loud noise-makers onstage would suggest.
A cult classic, the film bred new life for the band. After its release, Spinal Tap continued to produce albums and perform concerts in the real world, which begs the question: What have we done to deserve them?
Several rock icons, including Ozzy Osbourne and Jimmy Page, have said that the film hit close to home for them. Intentionally or not, This is Spinal Tap helps us understand and empathize with our rock idols and the world they inhabit, to see past all the ridiculousness onstage.