At 11:11pm tonight, 11/11/11, BAM hosts a screening of “the movie that goes to 11,” This Is Spinal Tap. It also screens at 7pm, to be followed by a Skype Q&A with stars Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer, in character as Nigel Tufnel and Derek Smalls.
The mockumentary has become such an accepted film and TV trope that, as shows like Modern Family and The Office have proven, all you have to do is sketch in that frame with the broadest of strokes, letting your characters mug for the camera or sitting them down in front of an imaginary interviewer to comment on the action every so often. But Christopher Guest doesn’t play that game. His largely improvised, almost painfully realistic, artfully artless mockumentaries commit, both to their ludicrously earnest characters and to the cheesy conventions of bad documentary films.
Guest’s first mockumentary, 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap, is a textbook example of how to make a fake documentary. Guest and his frequent collaborators Michael McKean and Harry Shearer cowrote and costarred, along with Rob Reiner, who plays fatuous director Marty DiBergi. Reiner actually directed the movie too, making Spinal Tap a case study for the anti-auteurist camp, since it plays so much like the mockumentaries Guest went on to direct, and so little like Reiner’s subsequent melodramas and bloated comedies.
Playing the core of the washed-up heavy metal band Spinal Tap, dim-witted Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins, and Derek Smalls, Guest, McKean and Shearer committed so much that they’ve never given an interview about the movie except as their characters. Who hate the movie, of course, and are hurt that DeBergi made them look like such losers. “We thought the film was slanted toward the crap side,” Derek told DeBergi in a Vanity Fair interview.
Motoring along from one joke-crammed scene to another, Spinal Tap is a greatest-hits collection of roadie tales from the end of the era of Spandex boy bands, crossed with a Marx Brothers farce. The heroic low-angle shots of the band performing, the clips of earlier incarnations of the band on cheesy 60s TV music shows, the costumes and hairdos, the songs and the album titles are all funny because they’re just a hair more exaggerated than the originals they’re modeled on, but the dialogue seesaws between deadpan absurdism and pomposity-puncturing satire, as studded with classic lines as Derek’s leather bracelet is with metal rivets.
Albert Brooks’s Real Life, his An American Family-inspired spoof of reality TV, was a similarly brilliant and realistic-feeling mockumentary, but he was too far ahead of the rest of us to catch much of a wave. Spinal Tap nearly flatlined too, in part because a lot of people mistook it for what it was spoofing at first, brushing it off as a badly made biopic about a third-rate band. But by the early 90s it had developed such a following that Nigel was hosting a show on MTV and the band was starting to play real concerts.
Thank God we’ve wised up enough to keep this sneakily moving, utterly snark-free masterpiece alive. We may laugh at these big-haired 30-something boychiks rather than with them—mostly because they have absolutely no sense of humor—but we feel for them too. And that combination of head and heart makes Spinal Tap a comic classic.