Intro: Art and psychology are intrinsically linked. The best art illuminates (or attempts to) the human condition, which is, after all, at the core of psychological investigation. This linkage is perhaps best evidenced by looking at popular cinema. While film does not always offer the most insightful perspective on human psyche, it is an effective gauge of the public mindset, if for no other reason than its uncommon hold on the culture's collective imagination. For good or bad, cinema (and television) has far surpassed the popularity of all other narrative art forms. One can convincingly argue that this is partially due to the ease with which most cinema can be digested, when compared with, say, a novel. However, much of film's popularity can certainly be attributed to its overwhelming raw power. Film is a visceral medium, or to paraphrase Canadian director David Cronenberg, "Film has teeth." Movies are potentially an effective instrument by which we can examine our modern psychological landscape, both personal and social, because more than any other medium, it enables us to experience life from another person's vantage point, to walk in their shoes, as it were. Queendom's Reel Psychology series will highlight some of the films that most effectively (or perhaps ineffectively) demonstrate a psychological bent.
Editor's note: The articles comprising this series are written in a decidedly informal, personalized format. In other words, they are opinions and express only the views of the writer. If you have a problem with the views expressed, please, feel free to express yours by dropping us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Released 1984. Comedy/Pseudo-documentary directed by Rob Reiner
Over twenty years since its original release, Rob Reiner's highly influential mockumentary, This is Spinal Tap, remains as relevant and hilarious today as it was upon its initial release. Why? I suspect because the pretentious, drug-addled, spandex-clad rocker remains a fixture of our popular culture, albeit often in somewhat altered form and attire. It matters not if it's a post- punk with eyeliner and a fake British accent or a self-proclaimed hip-hop genius buried up to the neck in bling, we all recognize the type being scathingly, yet somehow lovingly satirized in the film. Spinal Tap remains a cult favorite of many, heavy metal fans and musicians alike (including James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett of Metallica fame). The film's popularity inspired actual concert appearances by the fictional band and several reunions, most recently at the SOS/Live Earth concert to raise awareness of global warming.
The movie focuses on the comeback tour of supposed heavy metal legends (Spinal Tap), expertly portrayed by Michael McKean (as lead singer David St. Hubbins), Christopher Guest (as guitarist Nigel Tufnel), and Harry Shearer (as bassist Derek Smalls), all of whom also co-wrote the film. Each of the actors succeeds in creating a character that is both a unique individual and an identifiable parody of an iconic rock-star type. Throughout the film we are treated to brilliant lampoons of the familiar rock-documentary staples; life on the road, dealings with managers and various music industry types, historical footage of the bands early years and of course, live concert footage. The most memorable concert scene occurs during the band's epic performance of their masterpiece, Stonehenge, during which a pair of dwarves dance around an ill-conceived replica of Stonehenge half their size. The music itself is…well, to be honest, quite awful. But awful in a good way if you know what I mean. It is apparent that a certain amount of care and talent as well as affection for the music it spoofs went into its composition. While exaggerated and stereotypical, the songs do ring true and sound almost earnest.
However, it is during the band-member interview scenes that Spinal Tap is at its most hilarious…and truthful. Armchair rock historians will delight at the scenes of absurd exaggerated realism, such as when the band mournfully speaks of the tragic fates of a spate of drummers who died under questionable circumstances that include spontaneous combustion and a mysterious gardening accident. Beatle fans will recognize and appreciate the "Yoko Onoish" similarities of the McKean character's girlfriend, and the intrusive and unwelcome influence she attempts to wield on the band via the misplaced affections of her smitten (i.e. whipped) mate. And who can forget Nigel's complex technical explanation of the benefits of why an amplifier that goes up to eleven as opposed to only ten is desirable ("it's one louder, isn't it") that has attained legendary comic status amongst comedy fans and guitar aficionados alike.
Of course, Spinal Tap not only parodies rock musicians but the rock-documentary form as well. Those familiar with other rock documentary films such as Led Zeppelin's, The Song Remains the Same, Let it Be, The Complete Beatles, and most notably, Martin Scorsese's film, The Last Waltz, will certainly recognize the film style being spoofed. Indeed Rob Reiner's portrayal of filmmaker and interviewer, Marty DiBergi, seems to some degree to be modeled after Scorsese's appearance and role as interviewer in that film.
As mentioned previously, the movie remains a favorite of many, including devotees of the brand of heavy metal music that it satirizes. Initially this seems perplexing, because of the none-too-flattering depiction of the band-members as pompous buffoons and the music as pretentious drivel. Perhaps the reason metal fans are not insulted by the scathing portrayal of their heavy metal heroes is that the film also portrays them as being, at least in part, hapless victims of over-zealous filmmakers, intent on exploiting a basically clueless group of chaps whose idea of high art includes album and song titles such as Hell Hole, Big Bottom and Smell the Glove. Of course the band-members are only too willing to cooperate with the charade, preposterously pontificating on the artistic merit and social importance of their songs. Yet, surprisingly, we still feel for them and empathize with their public embarrassments and failures, even as we laugh at them - maybe because we in part can identify with their delusions of grandeur and pretensions of greatness.