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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

This Is Spinal Tap (review)

Heavy Duty Rock ‘n’ Roll

I can’t tell you how excited I was when I learned that This Is Spinal Tap was not only coming to DVD but also getting a new theatrical release, too. I mean, here I am, the biggest Taphead — or Tapgirl, as some of us femme fans like to be called — in the world, and here’s this great blast from my junior high school past. I’m sure I’m not the only one who pissed off a priest or a nun by wearing a Rock ‘n’ Roll Creation tour t-shirt to Confirmation class. I was a little young for that tour, in 1977, of course, but I got the shirt in a 1983 bet with my older cousin — who was actually there for the Madison Square Garden stop when Derek… well, the story is infamous — my cousin lost the bet when he didn’t know, if you can believe it, why Tap’s second keyboardist, Ross MacLochness, left the band.

But here I am rambling on, reminiscing, when I’m supposed to be reviewing. But this is what keeps happening. This is taking forever to write because I just had to drag out my old Tap albums. I’ve been listening to them for hours, actually on vinyl — the Japanese import CDs are just so outrageously expensive, but I may just have to bite the bullet and buy them. “Gimme Some Money,” eh? (My favorite Tap album? Well, I know some fans swear by Smell the Glove or even Break Like the Wind, and it’s not that I don’t love those albums, but I think the guys peaked with 1980’s Shark Sandwich. I say this out of deep love for them, so please, Tapheads, no flames!)
How’s this for a stroll down Memory Lane? When I was out at my parents’ last weekend, I actually found, in the back of the closet in my old bedroom, the Nigel Tufnel poster I had over my bed all through seventh and eighth grades. Nigel was way cuter than Eddie Van Halen… and way hotter on the guitar, too!

To get back to the movie: This Is Spinal Tap is simply one of the greatest rockumentaries ever, as is not unexpected from a visionary like director Marty DiBergi (whom, I never noticed before, looks a lot like Rob Reiner, who made Misery and The Princess Bride and other movies). Of course, it can’t have hurt DiBergi that he was following the band through the golden era of the 1982 Smell the Glove tour (the first of what would be three comeback tours), when Tap’s appeal was becoming more selective. A non music lover looking at this film might suggest that their popularity simply was waning, but true Tapheads know that it was just that the fair-weather fans had abandoned the guys during a period of creative crisis and experimentation. The real fans never left.

Yes, it’s true that the heart and soul of Tap, the boyhood friends from Squatney, East London, were butting heads during the Smell the Glove tour. Lead guitarist and vocalist David St. Hubbins (who bears a striking resemblance to the actor Michael McKean, who recently appeared in Mystery, Alaska) and co-lead guitarist and vocalist Nigel Tufnel (closely related to the actor Christopher Guest — I think they’re first brothers once removed) have had their ups and downs as a team during the years (see the article in Rolling Stone, March 3, 1974), and it came to a head on this tour. With the sensitivity of a brilliant filmmaker — and the love of a devoted fan — DiBergi captures the inspiring dynamic between these two creative geniuses, a relationship founded on mutual respect and admiration connecting two poetic and musical souls who constantly struggle with being true to themselves while also working in artistic partnership. Bassist and vocalist Derek Smalls (whom some people say looks like Harry Shearer, who does all those voices on The Simpsons, but I don’t see it) often plays the peacekeeper between the uncomplicated, almost innocent Nigel and the pragmatic, often volatile David, and DiBergi’s cameras are there, giving Tapheads our first truly intimate look at the band.

The film is profoundly moving in spots, as when David, Nigel, and Derek sing a harmony version of “Heartbreak Hotel” at Elvis’s grave at Graceland. The now famous feud Tap had with their label, Polymer Records, over the Smell the Glove album cover is covered here in its entirety. DiBergi does not shy away from showing us the band’s disappointment with the final result, and never let it be said that rock and roll is all fun and games — the expression of dismay on David’s face as their new album jacket is revealed is pitiful. And for Tap’s manager, Ian Faith (who after, and actually before, his tenure with Tap turned to acting and writing under the name Tony Hendra), life is all agony and no ecstasy.

DiBergi is celebrated as a documentarian who can put his subjects at ease, and he helps Tap’s then-drummer, Mick Shrimpton (who is not, contrary to rumor, drummer R.J. Parnell), one-up John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s bedroom press conference by interviewing Mick in the bathtub. And DiBergi prompts the notoriously private Nigel to reveal his renowned and never-before-seen guitar collection, though even DiBergi can’t quite overcome Nigel’s aversion to divulging all.

It’s hard to believe that This Is Spinal Tap debuted 16 years ago. The band has gone through some rough times recently — yes, it’s true the boys’ current gigs tend to be the gala openings of Virgin Megastores, but that’s only because Richard Branson is a huge fan, and they do these shows as favors. But we haven’t yet seen the last hurrah of David, Nigel, Derek, and the lads — I know this in my heavy-metal heart, which is where the legend that is Spinal Tap lives on today. Rock ‘n’ roll!

[reader comments on this review]

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MPAA: rated R

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
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