One of the inherent problems with satire is that it is dated by its very nature. The role of satire is to ruthlessly mock or make light of present-day issues or pop culture. The issue is that it becomes immediately unfunny the moment the thing it was mocking becomes irrelevant. The test of a truly great satire is if it can survive past its expiration date through either continued relevancy (Heathers, Spaceballs) or enough creativity that it can survive without the commentary (Modern Times, Cabin in the Woods). This week, we pass this satire through the filter and see how it fairs. Welcome back to Cult Month. This is Spinal Tap.
The film follows the titular fictional British rock band as they stumble their way through a disastrous American tour and try to promote their new album. Part of the problem with reviewing a satire (or a comedy in general) is that a lot of the content is reliant on the subjective experiences of the viewer. While I am a fan of the genre, I was not born in time to experience the golden age of rock and roll, the time in which presumably the now mythologized “rock and roll lifestyle” was developed. Presumably, somebody constantly bombarded with news regaling the drug highs of the Rolling Stones and other such stories would get a lot more out of this film than I would. I’m pretty sure I missed 75% of the jokes in this film (if there even were jokes) all because of the generational difference.
I also wasn’t thrilled by the dramatic element of the story. There’s this whole in-band drama about how one of the members’ girlfriend comes along and basically takes over the band, causing tension between the other members. In my opinion, a comedy doesn’t need a dramatic element because a comedy’s only job is to make me laugh. Does a dramatic subplot about band in-fighting and jealousy make you laugh? Well, this might as well be the comedy of the year for you. As for myself, I couldn’t give half a pound of the deep-fried baby seal about that.
Despite my problems with the film’s plot priorities and my own lack of knowledge causing most of the jokes to fly past me, I do find a considerable amount of enjoyment in the mockery of the tropes I am familiar with. Over the top bits like the stereo that goes up to 11 or the violin/guitar solo are truly inspired moments of comedic genius. The costume design for each of the band members is perfect satire by replication of the long-haired, leather-jacketed style that was a staple of rock culture.
The film also gets a lot of mileage out of its cast. Christopher Guest, Michael McKeen, and company all don pitch-perfect vocal imitations of the Beatles and their deadpan delivery make for some of the funniest moments of the movie.
The most unexpected positive element is the film’s soundtrack. Every single song played by Spinal Tap, however steeped in irony they may be, could’ve been released as a no-nonsense rock song in their own right. They’re just as full of as much vibrancy, energy, and passion as any Led Zeppelin piece.
This is Spinal Tap Final Thoughts:
This is Spinal Tap is a film that just as heavily relies on personal experience as much as comedic taste. After discussing the film’s merits with some of my colleagues here on the site, I’ve come to the conclusion that the audience this film most heavily caters to are music history buffs and people who have themselves been in a band before. However, even if you’re not in that specific niche (this is a cult film for a reason), you’ll still get one or two great laughs out of it. Check it out. It’s currently on Hulu and you can find copies on DVD and Blu-ray.
Next week… something weird.