Spinal Tap at 40 | the Evolution of the Music Mockumentary

Throughout human history there have been many grand declarations on the nature of intelligence by all manner of philosophers. The great Niccolò Machiavelli once said that “A wise man does at once what the fool does finally.” Pretty good, huh? Well, wait until you hear this next one. William Shakespeare wrote that “A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.” Catchy? Sure, of course, though I think we can do better. Far be it from me to argue with the father of modern political science and the bard of Stratford but I think the greatest of these ruminations belongs to David St. Hubbins, lead singer of Britain’s loudest band, Spinal Tap: “It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.” Nice. Rock ‘n’ Roll, one, renaissance, nil. Take that, Da Vinci! 

Believe it or not, it’s been forty years since the release of the seminal comedy film This is Spinal Tap. It is perhaps the most quotable film of all time. And it is certainly the film with the tightest of leather trousers and the moppiest of mop-tops ever put to screen. To celebrate, I’m going to take a brief look at the history of the music mockumentary subgenre. We’re going to examine all the precursors to Rob Reiner’s classic directorial debut and all the imitators that came in its wake. Ready? Okay, turn it up to eleven. 

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

The Beatles’ first starring vehicle is quietly one of the most influential features of all time. It’s a proto mockumentary, its black & white cinema-verité style cinematography mimicking TV news footage of the period. This is a real band in a fictional story mimicking their real experiences. And boy, does this capture the feeling of Beatlemania well. If fame is a drug, these poor guys were in danger of overdosing. But outside of a lonely stroll with Ringo, there’s no time for pathos here. Director Richard Lester brilliantly showcases the band’s sense of humour, drawing from his own experiences with Spike Milligan and the Goons. The resulting whirlwind of beat music and youthful energy soon inspired the creation of The Monkees television show, paving the way for MTV and music videos in general. Of course, style-wise, there are few of the conventions associated with the real documentary genre to be found. In a way, we’re still in old movie musical territory. But you won’t find Gene Kelly here. Tap-dancing is out, guitar chords are in. 


National Lampoon: Lemmings (1973)

This live concert film is a daring parody of Woodstock featuring future SNL stars John Belushi, Chevy Chase, and Christopher Guest. Yes – that Christopher Guest. And remember, this was before Spinal Tap. This was the first showcase of the genuine musical talent that he would later put to good use. Take notes, this is his big break! The whole affair is a mini-symphony of off-broadway madness poking fun at the excess of hippy/boomer culture. Three days of peace, love, and death, filled to the brim with spot-on impressions and scathing satire. There’s a snooze-worthy James Taylor, Joni Mitchell wearing a crown of flowers, and a money-hungry Bob Dylan. Most famously, we have the first appearance of Belushi as Joe Cocker, a staple of his TV career. Watching Lemmings today, you can practically see a generation of talent exploding before your eyes. Interestingly, National Lampoon writer Tony Hendra would go on to play Spinal Tap’s long-suffering manager.

The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978)

Eric Idle and Neil Innes skewer the story of The Beatles with the unique Monty Python brand of silliness. What’s not to love? This is the story of The Prefab Four as produced by SNL creator Lorne Michaels. In place of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Ringo, we have Nasty, McQuickly, Womble, and O’Hara. Each era of the band’s career is mimicked with pinpoint accuracy, from the days of the British invasion to the fond farewell of the rooftop concert. Even the song titles are pitch perfect; Ouch, Hold My Hand, Cheese and Onions, etc. The format used here is very innovative, with direct-to-camera interviews, a roving reporter, and a modern montage style. But there’s also a surreal edge to it all, something that sets it apart from the more realistic mockumentary efforts that came later. So to sum up, this is a fake band in a fictional story mimicking another band’s real experiences. Is this getting confusing yet? A ramshackle sequel was eventually made twenty-five years later. 

The Comic Strip Presents: Bad News Tour (1982)

The Comic Strip series was a key part of Channel 4’s original debut programming in the early 1980s. Here, the stars of Britain’s alternative comedy scene kick in their British fans’ TV screens as they take on the role of an outrageous heavy metal band profiled by a rock journalist. This madcap TV special was actually filmed the same year as This is Spinal Tap. It follows an eerily similar premise but the final execution is very different. The anarchic style on display here was arguably closer to that of The Rutles, though with a unique UK punk vibe. The Bad News special was somewhat of a cult hit and a sequel was made five years later, focusing on the band’s real appearance at the Monsters of Rock Festival, where they were pelted with urine-filled plastic cups. Yuck! 

This is Spinal Tap (1984)

Six years before the release of this smash-hit box-office success, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer first appeared as the titular group in a sketch comedy TV special. Their idea of satirising the music industry in a feature film starring their characters took a long time to come to fruition on the big screen, but thankfully it was more than worth the wait. The comedians’ wild performances on stage contrast perfectly with their dry reminiscences to camera behind-the-scenes. Only truly talented musicians could make bad music so well!

The improvisational style of the film brought a new sense of realism to comedy and audiences sometimes mistook it for a real documentary. Ironically, the success of the film has actually led to Guest and the others performing live as Spinal Tap and releasing new recorded material multiple times since its release. It also set the stage for everything from Alan Partridge to The Office. Even more so than The Last Waltz, this film captured the sad end of the golden age of rock and roll, warts and all. I have nothing but praise for director Rob Reiner, who also steps in front of the camera to take on the role of a fictional filmmaker just as his friend Albert Brooks did in Real Life five years earlier. 

24 Hour Party People (2002)

Michael Winterbottom’s cult classic mixes fact and fiction in a boldly iconoclastic look at Manchester’s iconic music scene. Steve Coogan excels as real life music impresario Tony Wilson, repeating and rebutting myths and urban legends in a postmodern collage of indie culture and ecstasy tablets. The meticulous recreation of the defunct Haçienda nightclub lends the atmosphere a real sense of authenticity. It’s like stepping back in time and entering a world of party hedonism. But with less chance of being killed in a drug deal gone-wrong. This film is perfect for fans of Trainspotting and Spike Island.

A Mighty Wind (2003)

The creators of Spinal Tap reunited for this satire of the American folk music of the 1960s. Less leather, more sweaters. Less electric guitar, more banjos. Less hair, more, erm… Well, male pattern baldness, I suppose. There’s more of an ensemble cast here than in the team’s previous outing and what a cast it is! Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, Eugene Levy, Jane Lynch, Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, Bob Babalan. Just listing the names makes me feel dizzy with laughter. This is a sweet and awkward tribute to a very sweet and awkward genre of music. It’s like the forgotten older step-brother of the more po-faced Inside Llewyn Davis

Popstar: Never Stop Stopping (2016)

Perhaps most famous for their viral SNL sketches, The Lonely Island turned to satirising modern pop with this masterpiece of stupidity. Exposing the vacuous glitz and glam of the contemporary music industry, the glossy production style mimics real documentaries like Justin Bieber’s Believe and One Direction: This Is Us. After the failure of his first leading role in Hot Rod, this is the film that should have solidified Andy Samberg’s career as a comic leading man on the big screen. Sadly, however, it flopped at the box-office, earning just under half its budget back. Nevertheless, Samberg’s role as singer Conner-4-Real is a masterclass in brash idiocy and egotistical showboating. 

So what comes next for this peculiar / exciting little subgenre? Well, the popular IFC comedy anthology series Documentary Now has already taken a few stabs at slagging the rockumentary genre. But perhaps it’s time for an older generation to return to their roots and take centre stage for one last ride. According to Rob Reiner, a sequel to Spinal Tap is on the way and will see the band reunite after the death of their manager. And I don’t know about you but I can’t wait to hear just how many drummers they’ve gone through since their last appearance. Ba-dum-tiss! 

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