- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 9, 2000


''This Is Spinal Tap" remains witty and satisfying at a savory age 16. Extraneous end command
This was the first feature directed by Rob Reiner, and he also doubles as its jovial, solicitous impresario and narrator, Marty DiBergi.
While the affable Marty introduces the footage, he begs our permission to coin a genre, "rockumentary," for his opus. We observe a fond, but sometimes humiliating, chronicle of the ill-timed, bungling 1982 American tour of a stale English rock band called Spinal Tap.
In younger and mellower incarnations, the musicians were known as the Originals, the New Originals and the Thamesmen. In their overcompensating 30s, they became converts to heavy metal, demonic trappings and lewd lyrics. One of the wittier musical jests achieved by the fictitious rockers — played by Reiner cronies Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer — is the lingering sappy echo of them as harmless balladeers from the late 1960s in Spinal Tap's belligerent anthems.
Mr. Reiner inserts fleeting, brilliantly contrived TV clips of Mr. Guest as Nigel Tufnel, Mr. McKean as David St. Hubbins and Mr. Shearer as Derek Smalls in their Thamesmen phase. They evolve from twerpy Herman's Hermits look-alikes to something along the line of Austin Powers' Minstrels.
Ostensibly, the entire movie consists of concert highlights, archival snippets and backstage candid-camera interludes with the band members and assorted associates.
Although Mr. Reiner hasn't returned to this pseudodocumentary, sketch-comedy format, Mr. Guest has made it something of a specialty in his most recent features, "Waiting for Guffman" and the upcoming "Best in Show." He also has begun to treat the idea of an inquisitive, intrusive camera more casually, brushing aside the convention that every sequence must be rationalized as a documentary component.
Mr. Guest's sly, saturnine portrayal of Nigel is the pivotal characterization in "Spinal Tap." What's eating Nigel becomes a humorous index to what threatens the band's solidarity as the tour crumbles.
The principal roles were improvised by the performers, who also mastered enough musicianship to fake the Spinal Tap numbers. The supporting cast is salted with distinctive bit players, from Fran Drescher and Bruno Kirby to Billy Crystal, Dana Carvey and Anjelica Huston (whose first name even gets misspelled in one billing during the end credits).
Paul Shaffer, before achieving fame as David Letterman's foil and band leader, did himself proud in this film as an apologetic record-company publicist named Artie Fufkin. Artie begs the grumpy musicians to kick him in the behind for an album-signing promotion that draws no customers.
Blunders and setbacks bedevil the group soon after arrival in New York City. Mishaps and ineptitude persist as Tap takes to the road. Canceled dates start to outnumber confirmed bookings. A dispute over the possibly obscene album illustration for Tap's latest LP, "Smell the Glove," stirs antagonism between artists and patrons.
The blithe evasions of the ironically named road manager, Ian Faith (Tony Hendra), don't seem to help. He remarks during an early reversal of fortune: "Oh, the Boston gig has been canceled. I wouldn't worry about it. It's not much of a college town."
A Tap breakup can be anticipated through Nigel's slow-burn disenchantment with one insult or another, from Lilliputian snack bread to the arrival of David's consort, Jeanine (June Chadwick in an impeccably vain characterization). A heavily lacquered blond interloper, Jeanine projects a latent bossiness that arouses all Nigel's latent hostility. The last straw is a stopgap gig at an Air Force base, where Tap seems so out of synch that Nigel salvages his wounded pride by walking off.
A new DVD version of "This Is Spinal Tap" is in the wings, augmented by outtakes and commentary that conceivably make it a better buy than the compact original feature, which packed a lot of sheer humorous gratification into 82 minutes. In retrospect, a viewer is impressed at how many bits or sequences remain astute, even arguably definitive, as backstage satire.
The most inspired single notion is the frustrating prelude to a Cleveland concert. The band, raring to rock the house, can't find its way from a mysteriously labyrinthine backstage area to the stage itself. As the group keeps doubling back and searching for a way out, its quandary becomes a perfect metaphor for the tour as a whole.

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TITLE: "This Is Spinal Tap"

RATING: R (Occasional profanity, sexual candor and comic vulgarity; fleeting allusions to drug use)

CREDITS: Directed by Rob Reiner. Written by Mr. Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer. Cinematography by Peter Smokler. Editing by Robert Leighton.

RUNNING TIME: 82 minutes

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