The Sneaky Structure of “Spinal Tap.”


I’m saying it’s sneaky, because I really didn’t think too much about it being there. But isn’t that the sign of a great story? One where you don’t see the gears churning away, pulling you through each scene toward an inevitable ending?

I think so.

What makes the “Spinal Tap” story so impressive is the use of scenes to simply convey information without resolution. I’m thinking specifically of the pre-break-up fight in the studio, where Nigel finally lets loose about David’s wife coming between them. The point of the scene is that they have a fight and that Nigel finally voices his opinion and that we see further cracks in the band’s infrastructure. It doesn’t end with the perfect capper of, say, the “Stone Henge” aftermath scene, but it’s effective. And what’s more, it serves the greater world of the movie.

I think people — myself included — blow off the story structure for movies like “Tap,” because the dialog is improvised. But if the characters had nothing to react to, they would just be jabbering. On the same note, the movie remains endlessly quotable, which makes people concentrate on the dialog way more than the story structure, thus under-estimating the clean execution of the story. I know I did this.

That fight scene also feels great because it’s based entirely on the characters acting (as in “putting forth action,” not “actors ACTING!”). Nigel is pissed and he yells. David is indignant and angrily laughs it off. The dialog doesn’t lead up to something else, but it supports the story. I can imagine the scene rundown they came up with read simply “They fight.” I know this sounds lame, after having just said I couldn’t see the gears working, but this is probably the 40th time I’ve seen “Tap,” so back off.

That scene ALSO serves as one of the most “Documentary-like” in the film, because it feels like a caught moment rather than a set-up scene. Out of all the Christopher Guest canon, I believe “Tap” remains the one that could actually pass (or come the closest to pass) as a real documentary. It feels like one.

This comes from direction, and it’s no surprise that Rob Reiner went on to become a very successful director after handling “Tap.” For a movie with scenes based on improvisation, there somehow doesn’t seem to be a wasted frame. “This Is Spinal Tap” was reduced to the essentials, and it’s better for it.

“…and why not?”


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