Although directed by (and featuring) Rob Reiner, This is Spinal Tap counts as an early delineation of what writer-star Christopher Guest was to take on (and develop) as his own comedy aesthetic in such later works as 2000's Best in Show and 2003's A Mighty Wind. Already in evidence: a preference for verisimilitude over straight-ahead gags (though, of course, if it's lifelike and funny, so much the better), extending to spot-on pastiches of not just the music, but musical ephemera (album covers, period pop-show coverage); and a remarkable ensemble cast improvising their way around characters who feel so real you couldn't easily make them up. Many of these performers helped to define American comedy over subsequent decades: look sharp, and you'll spot Fran Drescher, latterly a sitcom queen in The Nanny; Dana Carvey as a jobbing mime waiter, and Billy Crystal as his boss ("Mime is money!"); Paul Shaffer, David Letterman's bandleader, as hapless promoter Artie Fufkin; and Fred Willard, a standout of Guest's later films, as a clueless Air Force lieutenant.
Though studded with wonderful riffs, both musical and comic - Derek Smalls' football shirt, the constant gum-chewing, Guest's gloriously fey reading of the line "It's one louder, isn't it?" - the film has bigger things on its mind and down its trousers. It works because Guest, Reiner, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer establish a painfully credible dynamic between the Tap's three frontmen (and between these three and the band's tagalong backing musicians) and combine to tell as an engaging a story - about a relic-group plodding onwards toward oblivion - as any vérité documentary. Actual rockumentaries Dig!, Some Kind of Monster and Anvil! The Story of Anvil wouldn't have been framed as they were without the film's existence, but the surest sign of Tap's success as satire is that more bands will have watched it on their tourbus than, say, Woodstock, Don't Look Back or The Last Waltz - and still certain musicians can't help coming across publicly like Nigel Tufnel or David St. Hubbins.
This is Spinal Tap is available on DVD through StudioCanal.