Director Rob Reiner makes an appearance in his own film as documentarian Marty Di Bergi. It’s tongue in cheek, but no one seems to have told Spinal Tap or anyone else in the film for that matter. For all intent and purposes, they are a real band with a real camera crew following their every move. The lines between fiction and reality are very easily blurred, because Spinal Tap seems more legitimate than some bands that come together, with one original album attached to the film and two subsequent albums that followed. That’s the funny part, or maybe it’s sad, depending on how you see it. It mocks, it parodies, and it attempts for the overly-dramatic, and yet it doesn’t fall too far from the actual music industry.
This mockumentary, rockumentary, or whatever you want to call it, follows Spinal Tap during their not-so-long-awaited tour in the States. Their trajectory mirrors all the great rock bands of their day and age. Right now they’re in the Zeppelin or Aerosmith stage, but led by their two founding members David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) and Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), they started a skiffle band back in Mother England. It was a humble beginning, with numerous arbitrary name changes, a hippy phase (much like the Beatles), and finally the genesis of their big-haired, hard rock 1980s persona. After all, their amps go up to eleven, one higher than the typical amplifier. They’ve cranked things up to new levels, but it doesn’t help that they’re album Smell the Glove is getting some negative backlash for its cover art.
What follows is a less than promising tour with failed autograph signings and malfunctioning props onstage. All the while, the immature musical nucleus of the band Nigel and David begin fighting. It feels very Lennon/McCartney and their Yoko Ono is David’s girlfriend Jeanine (June Chadwick). When their original manager quits in a huff, Jeanine steps in and things keep on going downhill. Bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) just seems like he’s along for the ride, and their most recent drummer is just happy he hasn’t met the unfortunate fate of spontaneous combusting like his predecessors. No one seems to care about the keyboardist Viv. Ain’t it the truth.
Then, the fateful day comes when the band splits up, or at least Nigel finally leaves having had enough of it all. But as they play second-bill to a puppet show at an amusement park in lovely Stockton, California, the boys realize they need Nigel back. Although the U.S. wasn’t too welcoming to them, they look to have a bright future in Japan with popular hits like “Sex Farm” “Big Bottom” and “Stonehenge.” They’re very popular over there, and of course, their amps still go up to eleven.