This is Spinal Tap (1984)
Directed by Rob Reiner
Written by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Rob Reiner, & Harry Shearer

I was queasy with excitement to watch This is Spinal Tap with my girlfriend who, despite being a fan of Christopher Guest's movies, had somehow never seen it. Much to my bewilderment, she did not laugh once while watching it, and in a couple of instances, asked me to explain just what it was that I was laughing at.

Now, in the world of "Seinfeld," this would be immediate cause for dismissal, yet I had to quash that idea since the lady in question has so many other good qualities (she cooks, she cleans, she pretends not to know that I'm touching her kids). But I was forced to question why some people might find Tap to be one of those all-time classic movies, while others stare blankly, waiting for the boredom to end.

It may be that full appreciation of the film requires being a musician, since so many of the jokes are subtle and informed by the minute details that only someone who's struggled in a band would notice. Certainly the film is so accurate in this respect that many real bands were pissed when they saw it back in '84, since they assumed (some correctly) that the "rockumentary" must be lampooning them.

Canceled gigs, malfunctioning equipment, drug-addled egos, bonehead spirituality, misguided self-belief, and simple bad taste … even successful bands have been there. So I see how it's possible to watch the movie and believe it to be a pathetic real-life story, especially given that it's proven not to be very far off the hidden truths of "VH-1 Behind the Music."

And, watching alongside someone who got it but didn't seem to care much about it one way or the other, I can see how some would even find it boring. Like Monty Python and the Holy Grail and assorted other geek comedy favorites, Tap caters to a specific sensibility, delivering giddy thrills to those who have it, but not going out of its way to invite anyone else in.

This is probably the only real drawback to This is Spinal Tap: its smug self-satisfaction sometimes makes me wish I didn't like it, either. It hurts to know that when it comes to appreciating the film, I'm not much different from the morons who quote it to the point of tedium. See also "The Simpsons," "Mr. Show," Python, Kids in the Hall, etc, etc.

But seeing it again for the God-knows-how-many-th time, I admit, I still love it, still fall for every joke, still sit in awe at the deftly improvised performances. For all its savage mean-spiritedness, it's clear that all involved have, at bottom, love in their hearts for even the most clueless bands out there who choose to live their lives for the music.

Guest, McKean, and Shearer wrote and performed all the music (I saw them play live once, and I have to say, these guys are better being fake musicians than I am being a real one), and they get so deep inside the characters that you almost don't see the parody aspect. The cast is crammed with famous people, some in absolutely tiny roles, so you can enjoy Tap simply for its people-watching value, too. Hey, it's Patrick Macnee! Is that Billy Crystal? Is that Dana Carvey?

As for the content, I would list my favorite moments, but there's not a scenario, or even a line of dialogue, that I don't like quite a lot. I lean toward the faux "old footage" and album covers, and the gigantic deflated anticlimax of "Stonehenge," but it's all pretty priceless.

In fact, it's one of the only movies I would argue should be longer – even the outtakes are, to a large extent, hilarious (a high Kirby singing Sinatra in his underear, using a pizza crust for a microphone, is a standout). And while the whole conceit of Spinal Tap being a real band does get kind of tiresome (Rob Reiner's "Catching Up With Marty DiBergi" featurette on the DVD shows how much more these guys wink at the camera these days), you can't really blame the creators for being proud of conceiving something so unique and brilliant.

It's up for debate whether Guest's subsequent "mockumentaries" are actually better films (A Mighty Wind has a lot more heart, and less pure snideness), though Reiner has never been anywhere near this caliber since. As a satire of rock music, Tap is still the most original and the best.

I can't bring myself to join in on the inevitable quote-fests that occur when Tap fans find themselves together, preferring instead to appreciate it with silent reverence. It takes a durable movie to survive overly preening fans and/or apathetic critics, and this one will survive forever. It's a rare example of hilarious wit in the movies, instead of just comedy.

Review by J.T. Massage