Eric D. Snider March 3, 2009
In examining the influence of This Is Spinal Tap, you can’t go by the box office. The box office tells you nothing. The film only made $4.5 million, or $9.6 million in today’s dollars, which is a disappointment by most standards — and This Is Spinal Tap was not a disappointment.
When it was released — 25 years ago this week, on March 2, 1984 — the genre of “mockumentary” did not exist. The term had been coined but was not in common parlance. (The New York Times review called Spinal Tap a “mock-documentary.”) Only a few mock-docs had ever been made, few of them high-profile (Woody Allen’s Zelig, released a year earlier, was an exception), and the very idea made for a dicey prospect. Documentaries themselves were a fringe genre, mostly ignored by regular moviegoers; what hope could there be for a parody of a documentary? And even given that Spinal Tap was a spoof of a more popular, specific kind of doc — the rock-band profile — it still had to overcome another hurdle: the general public’s taste in humor.
This Is Spinal Tap, like all successful mockumentaries, is deadpan. The jokes are played with a straight face. A viewer who was only half paying attention — and that describes many viewers — could miss that it’s even supposed to be a comedy.
Roger Ebert spoke optimistically of its chances in his four-star review:
This Is Spinal Tap assumes that audiences will get most of the jokes. I think that’s right. Entertainment Tonight and music TV and Barbara Walters specials have made show-business trade talk into national gossip, and one of the greatest pleasures of the movie is that it doesn’t explain everything.
But in fact a lot of people didn’t get the jokes. In some cases, they didn’t even realize there were supposed to BE jokes — they thought This Is Spinal Tap was an actual documentary. (Adding to the confusion: the fictional band Spinal Tap, consisting of Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, and Christopher Guest, appeared as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live while the film was in theaters.) Without a jaunty musical score or a laugh track (which all TV sitcoms had in 1984), passive audiences had no cues reminding them to laugh. Deadpan humor rarely appeals to a wide, broad-based audience.
This remains a problem for mockumentaries to this day. Even the most popular ones, like Best in Show and A Mighty Wind, both made by Spinal Tap alumni, don’t crack $20 million at the box office. Waiting for Guffman, considered by many to be the second coming of This Is Spinal Tap, tanked at $3 million. TV’s The Office — a direct descendant of Spinal Tap‘s style of humor — is critically adored but always surpassed in viewership by a couple dozen dramas and traditional-format sitcoms. It wasn’t until 2006′s Borat movie that a mockumentary was a huge financial success — and Borat was far from subtle.
Many people are put off by dry, understated comedy; they say they don’t “get” it. Perhaps for this reason, those who do love these films and TV series tend to love them devotedly, as if a thing’s lack of widespread success makes it more endearing. This Is Spinal Tap‘s cachet increased over time, particularly after it became available on home video and people began to discover its underappreciated brilliance. Meanwhile, real rock stars noted how closely it mirrored their actual experiences — further testament to the film’s comedic genius, as it manages to be funny without forsaking reality. Everything in the film (except, perhaps, for the exploding drummers) is at least vaguely plausible, yet somehow completely ridiculous, too. As David St. Hubbins says in the film, there’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.
FROM THE TIME CAPSULE: When This Is Spinal Tap was released, 25 years ago this week, on March 2, 1984…
• Fellow new releases included Repo Man and Against All Odds, the latter of which opened in second place at the box office. At the top: Footloose, released two weeks earlier.
• You know what was less than two months old? The “Where’s the beef?” commercial! The Apple Macintosh computer was hot off the presses, too, having debuted in January. And speaking of hot, Michael Jackson’s hair caught fire while filming a Pepsi commercial five weeks earlier.
• Night Court, Airwolf, and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer had all recently premiered on TV. Kate and Allie is due in a couple weeks.
• The top song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart was Van Halen’s “Jump,” having recently displaced Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon.” Later in the month, Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose” would hit No. 1.
• The United States had just come in third at the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, which ended two weeks earlier.
• Jackie Coogan, Ethel Merman, Johnny Weissmuller, and McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc had all recently passed away.
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Categories: DVDTags: Christopher guest, Mockumentary, This is spinal tap