Ring in the New Year with Spinal Tap

December 30, 1992|By David Hinckley | David Hinckley,New York Daily News

The problem the mythical band Spinal Tap created for itself with its near-perfect 1984 movie documentary, "This Is Spinal Tap," was pleasant, but real: What could it do for an encore?

That problem surfaced again this year when band members Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) went on the road for a Spinal Tap 25th anniversary tour.

The satiric brilliance of the 1984 documentary, in which the veteran comedians scorched the entire landscape of rock 'n' roll, dissipated when they basically just played mock-heavy metal songs. First, the songs are not the second coming of Tom Lehrer. Second, heavy metal as a musical genre is already its own running satire.

So a new TV documentary on this tour, frankly, sounded about as promising as a new Boy George record.

Which makes it a pleasure to report that it's a wonderful thing.

"A Spinal Tap Reunion," airing 10 p.m. New Year's Eve on NBC (WMAR, Channel 2), lets the big three do what they do best: play droll straight men for themselves. There's Derek, standing in front of an abandoned construction site and explaining how he has been paying rent for years on a 10th-floor flat in a building that was never built.

A friend had convinced him to buy early at the pre-construction price, then make a killing on resale "and move to the country estate I deserve."

Failing to make that killing, he adds, he spent three years before the Spinal Tap reunion playing with a Christian heavy metal band called Lambsbloods that was a big hit at the "Monsters of Jesus" festival.

Across town, meanwhile, Nigel and David visit their childhood homes, adjoining rowhouse flats on the East End of London.

"In the old days, these were like mansions to us," says Nigel. "Well, not really. More like hovels. But large hovels."

He then remembers how his idea of a treat in their impoverished household was his Mum dipping cotton balls in water and giving them to the children for a snack.

Ah, yes. This is Spinal Tap.

The several musical numbers are tolerable but bland, because the viewer can't wait to get back to the jokes. These include guest spots from Martha Quinn, Kenny Rogers and Jamie Lee Curtis, who says she thinks she once went to a Spinal Tap concert, but can't remember anything.

One-liners ricochet off every wall. Nigel, holding a ferret, talks about opening a travel agency for small animals. Someone's girlfriend has opened a branch of "Potato Republic," which specializes in "itchy, Irish clothing."

Rob Reiner, who directed the 1984 documentary, is seen in his new office, a chair beside a pay phone in a hallway. Just a temporary situation, he explains, traceable to the failure of his "Spinal Tap" sequel, "Kramer vs. Kramer vs. Godzilla," in which there was an added element of tension because neither side knew if Godzilla would get the baby.

"It didn't work as well as I had hoped," he admits.

The drummers do seem to mostly survive this time, incidentally, and yes, Stonehenge is back. To find out how and why, watch the show. Watch the show anyway. It's impossible not to enjoy.

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