Lisa Fernandes / November 7, 2022
1984’s This Is Spinal Tap is all about the pining—epic pining, as high and fulsome as the band’s hair and the wailing notes they (try to) hit. Every single member of the band and their entourage is longing after something they want, something they need, but the real world thwarts them with a passionate glee. They’re either too recalcitrant to claim what they need, assuming that if they keep plowing on as they have been, glory will return to them; or, when their heart’s desire finally falls into their lap like a willing groupie, they’re completely unprepared for the responsibility of the task at hand.
Nobody in the band is content with how things are going, except for perhaps bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer), whose storyline—which originally contained divorce-based angst—was generally abandoned to the cutting room floor, and Viv Savage (David Kaff), who seems to require nothing more than a good time and a keyboard to be happy. Lead singer David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) longs for the respect the band once earned, and if he can’t be seen as a purveyor of popular music, he at least wants to be enrobed in the sort of dignity that most elder statesmen of rock are afforded. His wife on the astral plane, Jeanine Pettibone (June Chadwick), longs to prove that she has the skill and smarts to manage the band and isn’t just an astrologically-obsessed groupie who happened to get lucky with the lead singer. Manager Ian Faith (Tony Hendra) wants someone, anyone, to respect his authority and listen to what he has to say as chaos unspools around him. And newbie drummer Mick Shrimpton (R.J. Parnell), one in a long line of ill-fated skin-pounders who have lived and died by Spinal Tap’s ethos, just wants to make it through the tour without spontaneously combusting.
At the center of the movie—occasionally apoplectic, mostly filled with a cool and detached sense of calm—stands lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest). His longing is the most ardent of them all: he’s nearly visibly boiling beneath his skin with an obvious and ardent desire for the rest of the world to disappear and leave him alone with David.
This Is Spinal Tap has undergone multiple queer readings over the years, one of the very first suggested by Roger Ebert himself, who, in his Great Movies review of the film, declares that Nigel “longs for St. Hubbins with big wet spaniel eyes.” The movie’s cast is definitely aware of this interpretation of events. During a live-streamed 2020 reunion to benefit Pennsylvania’s Democratic party, McKean declared that someone once told him that This Is Spinal Tap is “the world’s greatest love story,” a statement McKean seemed to agree with and find flattering.
The film is also a story of watchful envy. It’s hard to ignore the look in Nigel’s eyes as he watches David, who is watching Jeanine, who is watching the stars. When Jeanine shows up in the middle of the tour and David races off to hug her, the camera lingers on Nigel’s downtrodden face as they hold each other. Later in the film, when Nigel enters the room with his Japanese tour trump card, the frame takes in Jeanine’s fury and disappointment. The tables turn in Nigel’s favor, firmly and utterly. The triangle cannot remain neatly balanced: Jeanine may have David’s body, but Nigel has captured his heart.
David’s physical affection for Nigel shows up in various moments in the film—most notably in the way he jollies Nigel into the room so he can hear a local radio station playing their early hit “Cups and Cakes.” There’s more proof in the pudding of the deleted scenes. Nigel teases David about “Nino Bidungo,” a sailor David had an affair with when the two shared an apartment; the two of them play “All the Way Home,” a skiffle-esque tune and their first composition, as a way to apologize to each other for the vicious fight they’ve just had. With David’s fingers dancing along the fretboard and Nigel plucking away at the strings, there’s a sense of harmony and affection, and the look on David’s face says it all.
Jeanine’s story would be a pitiable one were she not her own worst enemy, so hungry for power that she forces Ian out of his managerial role so that she can run things. It’s possible that she’s looking for control here because she never sees David and—in excised scenes from the film—he is not faithful to her while he’s on the road. If she runs his career and holds his purse strings, then he’ll have to respect her and she’ll be able to keep an eye on him. And in the meantime she can get onstage and bang a tambourine for a few minutes—after all, Linda Eastman got started the same way. But in Jeanine’s case the situation is actually sort of tragic, and just as emotionally provoking as David and Nigel’s unspoken love. The trouble with Jeanine’s attempt at climbing the band’s social ladder is, naturally, that she’s even worse than Ian is at booking the band into suitable venues. Working via astrology and David’s star charts, shoving him out front and letting him indulge his worst tendencies, her machinations are ultimately so clumsy that they result in Spinal Tap playing an amusement park where they’re billed second to a puppet show. What Jeanine longs for—David’s respect—she will never get. She’s left on the sidelines with nothing to be proud of, her influence on the band completely wiped away, longing for somebody to give her attention. But David’s attention remains fixed on Nigel’s face—perhaps forever.
In the very center of this push-pull triangle stands Ian, who just wants the band to get through the tour intact without any further disasters blowing the entire enterprise apart. Once upon a time, one assumes, he sat in some towering office complex, managing the careers of hard-rocking bands that were successful if not famous: a B-grade Led Zeppelin, an off-market Journey. Whatever led him to the door of this down-at-heel rock band, Ian is determined to at least gain some respect from these kids. But the band could care less about respecting him, and he takes his frustration out on inanimate objects. It’s not that the members of Spinal Tap set out to embarrass their fearless managerial forces; it’s that inept staff members, out of pocket creative decisions, and poorly operating stage props embarrass him, staining and straining the tour.
All of this tension is paid off by an orgasmic on-stage reunion and triumphant Japanese tour, which Jeanine can only watch from the sidelines as Ian smugly keeps an eye on her, tapping his cricket bat against his palm. The film chronicles a long, muddy battle for the band’s soul, and Nigel undeniably wins. Yet it’s not a sexist victory; while rock ‘n’ roll and brotherhood win the day, none of this is due to Ian developing a sudden ability to direct the band successfully. While Jeanine might be a bad manager and a worse girlfriend, the film’s other female characters—Bobbi Fleckman (Fran Drescher) and Polly Deutsch (Anjelica Huston)—are shown to be smart about their individual talents and the music business at large: they exist to point up the fact that Ian’s managerial skills are fairly terrible. What they want is for Ian to act like a sensible person.
Spinal Tap goes through a long conga line of humiliations before receiving its Japanese rebirth. While most of the movie’s characters get exactly what they need out of the long, strange trip they take to overseas stardom, some are left with their noses pressed against the plate glass window. But as the Rolling Stones famously sang: “You can’t always get what you want/But if you try sometime you’ll find/You get what you need.”
Lisa Fernandes has been writing since she could talk. Her bylines include Newsweek; Women Write About Comics; Smart Bitches, Trashy Books; and All About Romance.