THIS IS SPINAL TAP (Book review)

Ethan de Seife

Wallflower Press

(London, UK – distributed in the US through Columbia University Press)



Here's another volume in the Wallflower's Cultographies series of books devoted to cult movies. Of course, the book market is clogged by all kinds of picture books and 'guides' through the highs and lows of cinema, including the despised (but commercially viable) cult, genre, 'grindhouse', exploitation movies. But how many serious attempts are there which not only present an overview of recognized cult cinema, but also re-assess the canon of cult, and its audience? How many of them have to offer anything more than mediocre writing, funny anecdotes and colorful pictures? THIS IS SPINAL TAP certainly belongs to the former category of studies with a serious, scholarly agenda (which, somehow, does not stand in the way of the entertainment and readability).

Like other books in the series so far (THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, by Jeffrey Weinstock and DONNIE DARKO, by Geoff King), this one also uses a specific title to cover much larger ground relevant for its context, and deal with questions like: what is the specific appeal of a cult film? How are cult films conceived, constructed and configured? How are cult films received? What is the place of cult films in culture? Or, as de Siefe himself admits: "Cult films provide perfect opportunities for studying the intersection of enjoyment and analysis. A detailed study of the factors that make such films enjoyable can tell us a great deal about the films' cultural statuses; analysis can and should explain why these films have generated such devoted followings."

After the beginning in which he maps his own introduction to THIS IS SPINAL TAP in a gullible teen age, when the film's central joke of mock-documentary was lost on him (like on so many other innocents who took it for a real thing), de Seife goes on to recount the production, promotion and initial reception, guiding us through the relevant facts but never losing his way in the plethora of trivia. You can learn a lot about, for example, how much was scripted and how much improvised; the misguided marketing (including a poster way too reminiscent of AIRPLANE's, creating misleading expectations!); critical response which was almost universally favorable (a rarity when it comes to cult films!); the various video, laser disc and DVD editions of the film, and subsequent reviews of those; the fan base, including the web sites, blogs and even a band (VINYL TAP!) which pay homage to the movie.

Analyzing the particular type of humor that made the Cult of Tap, de Siefe sums it up: "Not only is SPINAL TAP extremely funny, but it is funny in ways that allow and even encourage its viewers to take part in it. By making a film about a subject (rock'n'roll) that has great meaning for many people, which does not talk down to its viewers and which provides ample opportunities to participate in its central joke, the creators of THIS IS SPINAL TAP have fashioned one of the definitive cult films of all time." The author places the film firmly in its stylistic and generic context of cinema verité style, mockumentary/rockumentary, comedy/parody, musical and rock history. He recognizes the stylistic devices attendant to the genres and styles that THIS IS SPINAL TAP adopts, but also the deviations from those, the reasons for them, and accomplishments thereof. He concludes that the film is predominantly a comedy, not mock documentary, and that each narrative and stylistic choice was made in order to make every scene funnier.

At the same time, the text follows the evolution of SPINAL TAP's music from country-tinged rhythm and blues all the way to heavy metal, pointing to the allusions and references to similar (actual) bands and extensively quoting from SPINAL TAP's outrageous lyrics, which are rightly recognized as one of the main sources of the film's timeless humor. Another time-defying aspect is that this film "parodies not only rock'n'roll, but also the semi-parasitic people and industries that have emerged to promote and valorize it. (...) SPINAL TAP has anticipated and pre-parodied the vapidity of rock star culture, which in recent years has metastasized on global level; such prescience is a major reason for the film's cult status. So cleverly accurate is its parody that, as long as there are rock bands, THIS IS SPINAL TAP will find an enthusiastic audience."

The obvious affection and deep understanding that Rob Reiner and his cast and crew had towards the music played in THIS IS SPINAL TAP is certainly at the root of their film's success. Instead of laughing AT the rockabilly, pop-rock, sympho-rock and heavy metal, they laugh WITH them, making numerous actual groups recognize their experiences even in the film's more outrageous incidents. The viewers were able to feel and respond to that. Hopefully the readers of this book will feel the same blend of reverence and critical attitude that Ethan de Seife shows toward the film he analyzes.

The author provides several thought-provoking figures, like the one showing the rise of numbers of home VCRs in American homes in the early '80ies (proving that the film grew in its cult status thanks predominantly to the video market, unlike, say, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, which created its main cult in the midnight cinema showings). Some figures seem a bit haphazard, like the comparison between the placement, duration and percent of total running time of musical numbers in THIS IS SPINAL TAP and SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (the latter being an example of a typical musical). He also adds the appendix: 'THIS IS SPINAL TAP segmentation' which includes the time scale of all relevant events, characters and themes; approximate running time of each scene and song titles present in it. All of these show the seriousness of approach and amount of care which will enlighten even the most devoted followers of the cult of THIS IS SPINAL TAP. Eminently readable for both connoisseurs and the uninitiated, Ethan de Seife's analysis of THIS IS SPINAL TAP can serve both as a great introduction and an elaborate extrapolation.

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