This Is Spinal Tap: A Journey into 1980s Musical Absurdity


The 1984 promotional poster for the film.

Sex, drugs, and rock and roll;  the anthem of the typical 1980s rocks star popularized by a single bearing the same name by U.K. artist Ian Dury. This typical rock star persona is highly satirized in Rob Reiner’s 1984 mockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap, which provides an uncannily accurate representation of the rock culture and lifestyle in the 1980s, despite being itself, a blatant parody of the movement. The film chronicles fictional band members Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins, Viv Savage, and David Small’s  wacky high jinks and attempted journey to superstardom. Rob Reiner stars himself as fictional documentarian Marty Di Bergi, who provides an overview of the band’s earlier musical experiments and roots in blues rock as, as well as conducting one-on-one interviews with each member of the fictional band to further capture the essence of the rock and roller persona.

Inspired by 1980s film Roadie, director Rob Reiner explains the film inspired by the premise of “what went on backstage at a rock and roll tour.” Reiner remarks that there was no set script to the film, and that actors Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer had improvised a majority of their lines in the film.The reason for this of course, was to add authenticity to Reiner’s mimicry of a rock and roll documentary. Though the characters and bands portrayed in this film are entirely fictitious, Reiner provides viewers with a hilarious and  insightful look into the culture of 1980s rock and roll culture, something that drew the decision for me to select this piece as my film of choice. What Rob Reiner produced is an intelligent, yet humorous  work of art that speaks for a culture and simultaneously entertains viewers.

It is important to look into the historical connotations, or, “rock and roll zeitgeist” of  the 1980s, the musical era around which this film is entirely based in.  The group finds their niche riding the coattails of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, following in the footsteps of breakthrough acts such as Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Motörhead, and many more. The advent of British Metal ‘s rising popularity in the United States serves as the basis for this film, which attests to the “spirit of the times” of when this film was released.  Ironically, the members of Spinal Tap are all played by American actors feigning British accents, which adds another level of wackiness to this mockumentary. The group is given the moniker of, “Britain’s Loudest Rock Band” , further adding to the outrageousness and absurdity of the persona Rob Reiner is satirizing in this film. Heavy metal stage antics are also poked fun at in the film with Spinal Tap’s hilariously failed live performance attempts, where countless setbacks cause the band’s grand, yet outlandish ideas for stage design to end in disaster.

The above clip serves to lampoon the stage performances of many 1980s heavy metal bands. Here we have one of the drummers for Spinal Tap who literally rocks out so hard that he spontaneously combusts. The band members note that there is has been no permanent drummer, a gag in the film as all the previous drummers of the band have suffered the same or similar demises due to over-the-top circumstances. Such a scene categorizes the epitome of the 1980s hard rock and heavy metal star; many of which were over-the-top, loud, in your face, and outright bizarre and ridiculous. It was qualities like this that made 1980s rock music a poweful force globally, especially in the United States, as the antics of many artists drew a lot of attention as well as controversy.

The film does an important job of also capturing the addition of sexual themes and imagery in heavy metal music as a tool to market the music. This can lead viewers to question the ethics of using sexuality as a point to sell music. This theme of sexuality is especially highlighted in the band’s proposed cover for their album, Smell the Glove (1982), which features, “a greased naked woman on all fours with a dog collar around her neck and a leash and a man’s arm extended out up to here holding on to the leash and pushing a black glove in her face to sniff it.” This is a clearly misogynistic album cover which objectifies a woman as nothing more than an object of sex, one of the key elements of the culture Rob Reiner may have been trying to capture in the film Polymer Records, the fictional label responsible for the production of Spinal Tap’s albums, makes the initial refusal to publish this cover when executive Bobbi Fleckmann suggests that the cover is offensive and sexist, to which Nigel Tufnel replies, “what’s wrong with being sexy? It’s suggested that the cover art was inspired by the art of fellow British band Whitesnake’s album cover for Lovehunter (1979), featuring a naked woman straddling a large snake.”

Controversial album cover for Whitesnake’s Lovehunter. (1979)

Proposed album art for Spinal Tap’s fictional album, Smell the Glove (1982)

The album cover for Smell the Glove (1982) is eventually censored by band manager Ian Faith, who remarks,”You should have seen the cover they wanted to do. It wasn’t a glove, believe me!” This prompts Tufnel to comment, saying, “It’s like, ‘how much more black could this be?”, the answer to this, which is none, none more black. This alternative album cover is representative of Reiner’s satire of a trend in other rock and roll albums with all black or partially black album covers such as AC/DC’s Back in Black (1980), and other later to come albums following the same trend, such as the album by thrash metal band Metallica, known as The Black Album (1991) by fans, or simply Metallica (1991). Reiner’s film does an excellent job of portraying artist trends in the 1980s. This is Spinal Tap is a film that manages to stay true to the genre through chronicling its evolution through some of the band’s decisions, which serves as testimony to this Reiner’s work as a good representation of the state of the rock and roll industry at the time.


There are several scenes in the film which further capture the grandeur ridiculousness of heavy metal music at the time. When asked by Reiner  to explain as to why the volume on his amplifier go to 11, rather than leaving 10 as the threshold while just increasing its volume, lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel, dumbfounded, simply retorts, “these go to 11!” Some may question the purpose of this scene, but the simplicity and hilarity of it captures the notion that 1980s heavy metal was absurd, and in fact, needed no explanation for its blatant ludicrousness. Tufnel’s remark of , “where can you go from there?” is a testament to the notion that it was the goal of many of these heavy metal artists to in a sense, “raise the bar” and break boundaries to be as ridiculous and extravagant as possible.

Overall, the film serves as a well-crafted parody of the 1980s rock and roll persona, while simultaneously addressing issues such as sexuality in the industry. The film culminates in a series of failed, disastrous American tours for the band, who luckily find success in Japan after their single Sex Farm (1984) charts the top 5 there. This is another stereotype of international success, where many bands that couldn’t find success in Europe or the United States found their niche in the Asian market. As a work of entertainment, This is Spinal Tap certainly proves to be full of enough laughs for anyone who does not understand the genre the film is satirizing to enjoy, while also capturing the vital aspects of the musical movement that it is making fun of. What the film also represents is the popularity of international music phenomenons, such as the British Heavy Metal movement. Ultimately, This is Spinal Tap is a clever, insightful, funny, and informative mockumentary.

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