The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, October 18, 2010

This Is Spinal Tap

At what point did movie spoofs get to be so cheesy?  I'd like to think it was somewhere in between Scary Movie 18 and Meet the Spartans 4.5.  It's a rough estimate, but who knows for sure?  If you're looking for a good spoof, the safest place to go is the late 1970s and early 1980s where movies like Airplane, The Naked Gun, and just about any Mel Brooks movie dominated theaters.  These were spoofs that were still somehow smart in their stupidity.  I'd seen most of these spoofs and for the first time recently watched 1984's This is Spinal Tap.

If there was anything begging to be spoofed in the 1970s and 1980s, it was the music business and all its sex, drugs and rock and roll.  And for a movie set in the 1980s, director Rob Reiner could not have picked a better musical era to set his story in.  It was the transformation from hard rock and disco to a weird mix of hair bands and heavy metal, basically the most in your face, not so subtle form of music ever.  Some groups evolved with the times while others stuck with what they knew.  Then somewhere in between is the fictional British rock band Spinal Tap, about to release their 16th album in the last 15 years.  Smart, stupid, and just all around funny from the start.

After 15-plus years together, British rock band Spinal Tap is going on an American tour that will cross the country in hopes of boosting sales for their upcoming album.  A filmmaker (Reiner) tags along to document the tour and see all the craziness that is a rock band trying to reclaim their spot at the top.  In the group are lead singers and guitarists Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) and David St. Huffin (Michael McKean), bass guitarist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer), along with a rotating door at drums and of course, a keyboardist. Almost from the get-go, nothing goes smoothly as the tour doesn't exactly live up to expectations.  The group starts fighting, nothing goes as planned, and interest in the new album just isn't there.  So what should these aging rockers do?

The fictional group samples any number of backstories for this spoof with The Beatles obviously the first to come to mind.  Nigel and David fight like Paul and John with a nosy girlfriend (June Chadwick) trying to take over the band and in the process driving everyone apart. Then add in aging rock stars like The Rolling Stones with a touch of Led Zeppelin and every hair band ever, and you've got the makeup of Spinal Tap.  Some of the funniest moments come from the actual performances because the music is actually pretty good, but then you start to listen to the lyrics.  Subtle went out the way a long time ago, including my favorite, Sex Farm. Their songs are so ridiculous they're funny, and the on-stage performances are a scream.

For me though, the best parts were those little vignettes where you see how ludicrous, how absolutely crazy the life of a pampered rock and roll star really is.  The best of course is Guest's Nigel explaining how Tap's amplifiers go up to 11 instead of the usual 10.  For those not familiar with this iconic scene, check it out HERE. Also look out for the underrated "Don't even look at it! Don't point at it!" line.  But that's just the start.  There's Guest complaining about the sandwiches catered backstage with bread that is too small, the band getting lost backstage on their way to the actual stage (watch HERE), a running gag with the life expectancy of Tap's drummers, and the mini-Stonehenge incident (HERE). There are few scenes out there as perfectly put together as these handful of examples, and that's just the start.  It's the interviews, the on-stage performances, the rehearsals, the hotel rooms, everything is pitch perfect here.

The main trio -- McKean, Guest and Shearer -- have worked together since on movies like Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and several other movies, but this is their best.  Their chemistry together is impeccable, and it's hard to tell when they're actually acting off the script or just improvising wherever the scene takes them.  Guest steals every single scene he is in as Nigel (think Paul McCartney from The Beatles) and immediately becomes one of my favorite characters ever.  Several of those already mentioned scenes are sublime because of him alone, his line deliveries nailing the punch lines.  That's not to say McKean and Shearer aren't funny, they're just not as funny. There's also Tony Hendra as Ian Faith, Tap's much-maligned manager who can't seem to do anything right with these fading rock stars. A cast in a comedy has rarely been better, and that's just the start.

While those three band members, Hendra's Ian and Reiner's often off-screen director dominate the movie, there's a long list of small parts from actors/actresses who would go on to bigger and better things.  Start with Billy Crystal and then add Dana Carvey, Bruno Kirby, Anjelica Houston, Fran Drescher, Ed Begley Jr., future Letterman band leader Paul Shaffer, and the always reliable, always funny Fred Willard.  I haven't laughed this much in awhile, and I'm sorry it took this long to catch up with this comedy classic.

This Is Spinal Tap <---trailer (1984): *** 1/2 /****

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