Nigel (Christopher Guest), Derek (Harry Shearer) and David (Michael McKean) are a ragamuffin British power trio on the downside of a long music career. (They're a trio because their drummers all tend to die of mysterious circumstances soon after joining the band.) They started life as a folk group in the 60s before going through various marketing makeovers and finally emerging as hard rockers.
Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner, who also directs) is a documentary film maker who has decided to chronicle Spinal Tap's return to touring after a six year absence. Because they're no longer at the top of their game (or the charts) this tour is notable for the rock star accoutrement that isn't there. None of the band members wants to believe they're nobody now and many of the biggest laughs are generated by juxtaposing their desperate belief in their own rock stardom with manifestations of their irrelevance.
These guys are emblematic of what can happen to ordinary blokes in a celebrity obsessed world. Guys with little or no book learnin' can wind up stars if they're in the right place at the right time and that's one of the great egalitarian aspects of modern culture. Unfortunately a lot of people who get caught up in the whirlwind make the mistake of believing their own press and when the spotlight shifts to the next big thing are left flailing about in life unable to understand what happened. When you're riding the crest of the wave its tough to imagine that there will ever be a time when the wave has crashed ashore and left you high and dry. Such is the case with Spinal Tap.
But the film makers never use their movie as a platform from which to launch mean-spirited critiques of their subjects. It's not about tearing them down because they didn't do anything to be torn down for. They simply took advantage of what the world they were born into offered them, even if they maybe didn't quite understand what they were getting into. Its the system that nurtured them that takes the biggest digs in This is Spinal Tap. From the incompetent manager to the ineffective publicist to prop designers to roadies to record company executives This is Spinal Tap forces each to stand bound in front of the bands Marshall amps and turns the volume up to 11.
The rock star documentary itself comes under the same scrutiny. There's a hilarious bit where the band pay a visit to Elvis' gravesite for the mandatory "homage to those who blazed the trail" scene and are at a complete loss for what to do. They wind up forcing out a pitiful 3-part harmony version of "Heartbreak Hotel" before David finally gives into the futility of the moment and declares "Too much f**king perspective!"
He's absolutely right of course even if he doesn't know it and that's what makes the scene so hilarious. This is Spinal Tap takes on every rockumentary from "Don't Look Back" to "Truth or Dare" and leaves no stone unturned in rooting out the innate absurdity of it all. And isn't that the job of comedy? To gently shed light on those aspects of life that we'd rather not discuss because of what they say about us? Of course it is, and This is Spinal Tap does that job incredibly well. In the end, (after you stop laughing), you're left wondering more about yourself and why you ever bought into the PR surrounding this or that band then you are about the band members you helped make millionaires. That's no small accomplishment for a low budget comedy in any day and age.
Here's a few of my favorite Spinal Tap quotes.
David: "Well, I'm sure I'd feel much worse if I weren't under such heavy sedation."
Nigel: "I'm really influenced by Mozart and Bach, and it's sort of in between those, really. It's like a Mach piece, really. It's sort of..."
Marty DiBergi: What do you call this?
Nigel: Well, this piece is called "Lick My Love Pump".
Derek: "... people should be envying us, you know."
David: "I envy us."
"As long as there's, you know, sex and drugs, I can do without the rock and roll."