This Is Spinal Tap is coated with the stylized veneer of a rockumentary turned inside out or, rather, back on itself as self-conscious dress-up, playful disguise. The cultivated image of rockstars and familiar tropes of documentary filmmaking – hand-held footage, interviews, and grainy archival clips – become reformulated as comic iterations of pop culture excess.
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In today’s era of #MeToo, it’s hard to sympathize with a group of aging white men who loudly proclaim their sexual prowess and display a cringeworthy excess of masculinity. No one wants to call themselves a fan of an ensemble that tries so hard to convince us of their effortless virility in the face of their own obsolescence. Rooting for these men seems impossible.
Yet we do. In Rob Reiner’s 1984 mockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap, we laugh at but also cheer on the members of a fictional British rock band as they embark on a stadium tour across America. The faux documentary follows band members Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer). Clad in shaggy wigs and garage glam eyeliner, the men imitate iconic pelvic thrusters such as David Lee Roth and Mick Jagger (more on bulges in tight pants later). The band releases their new heavy metal album, Smell the Glove, in an effort to stem their waning popularity: the rockers struggle to fill stadium seats and book reputable gigs. Toward the end of their tour, they resort to playing for underwhelming crowds, performing at a U.S. Air Force Base and, later, an amphitheater at a puppet show.
We can’t help but want the band to succeed as they glom onto passing musical trends decade after decade, desperate to produce a smash hit in order to stay relevant and avoid the humiliations of aging. We find the group’s quirks and blunders relatable, their clashing egos and constant bickering amusing. And when Spinal Tap seems to be coming apart at the seams, we hold our breath, hoping that lead guitarist Nigel will return and continue the tour (Spoiler alert: Nigel reunites with the band and they become a hit in Japan, their fanbase revived once more). Cue a sigh of happy relief: just when it seems like the underdogs won’t make it after all, they prevail. Cut to the film’s final scene, where the band shred their guitars in front of a zealous crowd in Tokyo. Rock and roll is saved. While we know Spinal Tap probably won’t be included in a lineup of legendary rock figures, at least they won’t be forgotten.
How did this group of heavy metal musicians come to gain our affections? Recall the band’s faults, which most would label as downright misogyny: they sing songs called “Sex Farm” and “Lick My Love Pump.” They don’t understand why their proposed album cover of a naked woman on all fours wearing a dog collar is offensive, nor can they seem to distinguish the line between sexy and sexist. We should be repulsed, or at least offended. And yet we root for them. How could we possibly do that?
The answer, I think, lies in a certain mode of aestheticism: camp. Camp taste views objects through a lens of detachment and cynical enjoyment, lending itself to the form of mockumentary that Reiner employs. Extravagance and style produce ironic distance: camp values the frivolous over the serious; it celebrates artifice rather than beauty. Susan Sontag’s famous essay “Notes On ‘Camp’” provides a useful framework for understanding how camp aesthetics manifest within mockumentaries. “Camp,” Sontag argues, “is a vision of the world in terms of style – but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not” (3). Mockumentaries love to pretend: This Is Spinal Tap is coated with the stylized veneer of a rockumentary turned inside out or, rather, back on itself as self-conscious dress-up, playful disguise. The cultivated image of rockstars and familiar tropes of documentary filmmaking – hand-held footage, interviews, and grainy archival clips – become reformulated as comic iterations of pop culture excess.
The implied inauthenticity of the film’s mockumentary style fosters a cynical kind of love, an enjoyment of bad taste that camp relishes. Admiration for the band stems from an it’s-so-awful-it’s-good mentality. Or, as lead singer David St. Hubbins puts it in the film, “There’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.” Indeed, our applause for Spinal Tap blurs normal aesthetic judgment and stages an inversion of ordinary taste.
Enjoying something precisely because it is “bad” opens the door to ridicule and malice. The force of camp at play in Spinal Tap, however, renders the band as lovable underdogs rather than victims of a snarky insult. The empathy and affection we find in camp taste stem from their extravagant failures. The band members are bumbling protagonists who try, fail, and try over and over again, hoping to achieve status and respect within the music industry.
Spectacular blunders are presented with full sincerity. There’s the Stonehenge fiasco, where Nigel Tufnel mismeasures the dimensions of the monument, confusing inches for feet. In a dramatic reveal, a tiny replica of Stonehenge descends on stage. Dancing dwarves tower over the prop, making the mishap all the more obvious. Or recall when the band gets lost backstage in Cleveland. The band members, pumped and ready for an electrifying performance, weave through the venue’s mazelike corridors, shouting “Hello Cleveland!” and “Rock and roll!” at every wrong turn.
Such failures elicit affection because they reveal quirks and characteristics of the rockstar persona often found in popular culture, perhaps bringing us closer to understanding the larger-than-life musicians we see plastered across billboards and magazine spreads, their faces reprinted on graphic t-shirts. Despite the ubiquitous presence of rock icons, they remain a leather-studded enigma. The type of magnificent failure that camp holds so dear contains the promise of intimately knowing the rock bands we hear over the airwaves, blasting from a bluetooth speaker in an adolescent bedroom or softly emanating from the open window of a passing car.
In the case of Spinal Tap, the quirks of character revealed through failure not only warrant affection, but they also undercut the brand of masculinity that rockstars often project. Take, for example, the scene where the band’s bassist, Derek Smalls, is caught hiding a cucumber in the crotch of his pants at airport security. After setting off the metal detector multiple times, Smalls sheepishly removes a foil-wrapped cucumber from his jeans, flinging it onto the table in embarrassment. Here, male masculinity becomes an artificial performance, a display of excess. The bassist’s vegetable bulge and failed performance of masculinity signal that virility and sexiness are not effortless but, rather, an exaggerated and stylistic production.
The cucumber scene’s qualities – hyperbole, comic performance, and inauthenticity – do more than prompt a laugh: they also illustrate how mockumentary is a genre that befits underdogs. Unlike documentaries, the mockumentary mode of representation privileges feeling over facticity. Severed from notions of veracity, instruction, and seriousness, mockumentary’s appropriation of documentary conventions produces a campy love that offers its subjects sentimental redemption. Think about how different the mockumentary genre is from a classical documentary like Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), a film that depicts an Inuk man, “Nanook,” and his family as they brave the Canadian Arctic, building igloos and hunting walruses. Mockumentaries don’t assume an anthropological aura of truth in order to make ideological claims about the world. They don’t belittle the “other” for the purpose of enlightenment. Rather, we rally around mockumentary and its underdogs, even if – and most likely because – they underestimate the size of Stonehenge and use cucumbers to create a desired bulge.
Yet our applause for Spinal Tap is careful and knowing: even as the camp sensibility found in mockumentary form produces an excess of sentiment that suits the underdog, it also maintains distance between us and the subjects we root for. For the mockumentary spectator, enjoyment and laughter are underpinned by a layer of distrust toward the film’s images; the assumed verisimilitude of documentary tropes becomes perceived as artifice, style. Sontag explains, “Camp sees everything in quotation marks. To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role” (4). Spinal Tap is not a rock band, but a “rock band.” Quotation marks extend to our fandom for Spinal Tap: we root for the band for the purpose of play and pleasure rather than serious reverence.
And while the air quotes that come with mockumentary reflect ironic distance and distrust, they don’t have to limit our attachment to the underdog. Precisely the opposite: perhaps it’s the frivolous, pleasure-seeking mode of engagement we find in mockumentary that fuels cult fandom for Reiner’s film. Our enjoyment of camp taste is what keeps audiences gathering for screenings 37 years after the film’s initial release. These retrospective screenings – the last of which occurred at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival – not only allow us to laugh at the band’s quirks, personalities, and blunders once more, but they also give us a chance to see our own conventions of factual representation spit out again until they appear performative, ridiculous, and strange. Turns out that the craft of grungy sexiness and loud rock music are not the only thing to be gleaned from the underdog.
Sontag, Susan. “Notes on ‘Camp.’” Partisan Review. Vol. 31. 1964.