There's "not so bright," and then there's Nigel Tufnel. "Sincere idiocy," the New York Times called it (source).
This guy thinks that human bones are green. He has a very difficult time understanding simple instructions with respect to the folding of deli meat. And no amount of explanation will ever get him to understand why it's pointless to have an amp go to eleven rather than ten.
But we still pull for him because, well, his idiocy is kind of endearing. It's not just regular stupidity, for one thing. It's hilariously worded stupidity, and you almost have to forgive someone for being brainless when they make you laugh as hard as Nigel does.
NIGEL: The sustain, listen to it.
MARTY: I don't hear anything.
NIGEL: Well, you would, though, if it were playing.
Secondly, making an audience feel as if they're substantially smarter than a character on screen can do wonders to build people up and enhance their feelings of superiority. Which explains so many of the questionable politicians who are elected to office.
It also doesn't hurt that his ignorance fits seamlessly with his character, making him all the more believable as an actual, drugged out rock star a few million brain cells short of a complete frontal lobe, who doesn't know his "sexist" from his "sexy."
Just like the Druids (according to Nigel), it's almost as if he doesn't know who he is or what he's doing.
There's no denying it—you simply cannot separate sex from rock and roll. Even when a rocker isn't obviously attractive in the traditional sense, they seem to do all right in the…let's call it "dating" department. There's just something about the voice, the performance, the hair/makeup, the entire mystique, that causes audience members to swoon.
In Spinal Tap, it's Nigel who fills that role. We see him without his shirt on, and we're not particularly impressed. He's not unattractive in the face area, but he's certainly not the lost fourth Hemsworth brother. And as we've already mentioned, no one's going to be drawn to him for his mind.
And yet, his raw charisma and totally undeserved self-confidence make him irresistible to women. At least, that's how he sees it.
As with any musical sex symbol, Nigel has his "thing." For Elvis, it was those hips. For Adam Levine, it's the tats. For Enrique Iglesias, it was the mole. (Why did you have it removed, Enrique? Oh, why?!) For Nigel, it's that tongue. Like Chaim Witz. Oh, sorry—you know him as Gene Simmons.
He might claim the tongue only comes out to play when he's riffing extra hard, or "lost" in his music, but it's pretty clear that this is really just his vision of what sexy looks like. And, of course, he wouldn't mind any female fans out there drawing whatever body part comparisons might inspire them.
When it comes right down to it, Nigel probably recognizes that he's not the sharpest spoon in the drawer (an idiom we imagine Nigel probably uses). He likely figures that the best way for him to make up for what he lacks upstairs is to draw attention to the "armadillo in his trousers."
There's no one in the band more versatile than Nigel. He sings, he composes, he plays multiple instruments, and he apparently has some mad haberdasher skills.
Unlike the other members of the band, who seem a bit more one-dimensional (with the possible exception of David St. Hubbins, but even he seems to have his limitations), Nigel is all about stretching himself (artistically, not just his tongue).
At one point we get a glimpse at his sensitive side:
NIGEL: It's part of a trilogy, a musical trilogy I'm working on in D minor which is the saddest of all keys, I find. People weep instantly when they hear it, and I don't know why.
MARTY: It's very nice.
NIGEL: You know, just simple lines intertwining, you know, very much like - I'm really influenced by Mozart and Bach, and it's sort of in between those, really. It's like a Mach piece, really. It's sort of...
MARTY: What do you call this?
NIGEL: Well, this piece is called "Lick My Love Pump."
Oooh. So close.
What we learn most about Nigel here is not that he's multi-talented, or that he has a genuine appreciation for classical music. What we learn is that he is trying very, very hard to be something he isn't.
The only part of this entire exchange that feels typically "Nigel" to us is the title of the piece. Everything else is forced, as if he feels compelled to branch out and surprise or impress people, going out of his (narrow) comfort zone in an effort to carve out a legacy.
Sadly, we don't expect that "Lick My Love Pump" will be the signature musical departure he has in mind. But we hope he proves us wrong, and that even a bunch of cynics like us will "weep instantly" when we hear the finished project.
If Nigel looks familiar, it's probably not because you've run into him at your local bakery. (He hates the small bread they serve there anyway.)
The actor portraying Nigel is the brilliant and deadpan hilarious Christopher Guest, who pretty much owns the movie mockumentary medium. He's been the driving force between several other films shot and produced in the same style, including Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration.
It's also possible, however, that you've seen all those films and still haven't recognized him, since he vanishes into each and every role, no two of which are even remotely similar. So wait—he's the shirtless rocker and the effeminate director with a bowl cut from Guffman? Yup. One and the same.
He's also the six-fingered man in The Princess Bride, btw. And while he plays a convincing six-fingered man, he only has five fingers on each hand in real life. It's called ACTING.
David St. Hubbins is the resident Yoda of the group. (If we're sticking with Star Wars references, that would probably make Nigel Han Solo and Derek Chewbacca, but that's neither here nor there.)
While there may be two fellas on Lead Guitar, David is the heart and soul (and hair) of Spinal Tap. He's the experienced, rock solid, wise one. Although let's be honest. Next to those other guys, Shia LaBeouf might look like the "wise one." The film likes to spoof the earnest philosophic pronouncement of guys who are dressing up in Spandex and screaming on stage for a living, and David is often the mouthpiece:
REPORTER: So tonight's the last show of the tour. How's that feel? You know, is like this your last waltz, are we talkin' the end of Spinal Tap, or are you gonna try to milk it for a few more years in Europe, I mean....
DAVID: Well, I don't, I don't really think that the end can be assesse, uh, as of itself as being the end because what does the end feel like, it's like saying when you try to extrapolate the end of the universe you say the...if the universe is indeed infinite then how what does that mean? How far is, is all the way and then if it stops what's stoppin' it and what's behind what's stoppin' it, so what's the end, you know, is my question to you.
But while Nigel is consumed with Nigel, and Derek is just muddling through life happy to be in the company of two such "visionaries," David actually seems quasi-normal, all things considered. He tells Nigel not to store his used chewing gum on his finger. He knows the black album cover is a disaster. You get the sense he's behind most of the group's music and lyrics, probably has a lot to do with their look, and—second only to the band manager, likely contributes quite a bit to the business decisions as well.
He's more of a grown-up than Nigel.
And while he certainly has had his share of boneheaded comments, and will occasionally fly off the handle with little provocation (See: his big fight with Nigel), in general he seems able to keep a level head and maintain some semblance of order. He's the glue. Without him, the band probably would have broken up long ago. (Okay, so we know that's not exactly how glue works. Just humor us.)
David is committed to the band, has a clear idea of its direction and would do anything for his dear friends Nigel and Derek.
Unless, you know, Jeanine instructs him otherwise.
Yeah. When it comes to his main squeeze, David has quite a few stars in his eyes. He pretty much defers to Jeanine on any and all matters, either assuming she knows better than he does, or terrified of the repercussions should he ever disagree or cross her. However, considering David's personality, it definitely feels like the former. David wouldn't hand the band over to Jeanine just to make her happy. But he certainly does seem to believe that she's a wizard when it comes to booking gigs, sketching animal costumes, or "arranging a whole load of charts."
DAVID: Before I met Jeanine, my life was cosmically a shambles, it was ah, I was using bits and pieces of whatever Eastern philosophies happened to drift through my transom and she sort of sorted it out for me, straightened it out for me, gave me a path, you know, a path to follow.
And there you have it. He owes her for his spiritual transformation, sure, but only because he honestly believes she's got it all figured out.
So what if her management decisions ultimately send Spinal Tap the way of the dodo? At least David would still have a good-looking meditation partner to help him get through it. It's almost a win-win.
Okay. Wrong Lenny/Lennie.
Michael McKean, who plays David St. Hubbins, was no one-trick pony. In his pre-Spinal Tap years, he played Lenny on the hit TV show Laverne & Shirley (not as cool a name as Squiggy, unfortunately). Later, he joined forces with his old pal Christopher Guest (Nigel) in other mockumentary projects, including Best in Show and A Mighty Wind.
More recently, he's been knocking it out of the park as Saul Goodman's brother Chuck McGill on the Breaking Bad spinoff prequel Better Call Saul, playing a character who believes he has an unusual condition in which he's hypersensitive to electric fields. Sounds like something David St. Hubbins would say.
As the tour nears its end, there's lots of mixed feelings flying around. But David's not freaking out. He appreciates the journey and looks to the future:
DAVID: I've always, I've always wanted to do a collection of my acoustic numbers with, the London Philharmonic as you know.
DEREK: We're lucky.
DEREK: I mean people...people should be envying us. You know.
DAVID: I envy us.
David's a rocker at heart, though. Those screaming Japanese fans beat the London Philharmonic hands down.
The "big three" of Spinal Tap are clearly David, Nigel and Derek. That said, Derek tends to get the, um, small end of the stick.
Nigel and Derek are the guitarists. They're the vocalists. They've known each other since they were practically in the womb. It's those two the public comes to see. Well, what's left of the public that comes to see them, anyway. Derek, while he may be standing front and center, doesn't get nearly as much attention, no matter how much junk he stuffs down the front of his pants.
As best we can figure, there are a few reasons for this:
Derek loves everything about being a rock star—the women, the shrieking audiences, the tight pants. He seems to accept his role in the band:
DEREK: David and Nigel are like poets, you know, like Shelley or Byron, or people like that. The two totally distinct types of visionaries, it's like fire and ice, and I feel my role in the band is to be kind of the middle of that, kind of like lukewarm water.
But while Derek may play third fiddle (all right, so it's a bass guitar), we still remember him. Partly for his facial hair, partly for that confused look in his eye. All we know is that Spinal Tap wouldn't be the same without him. It would be awfully similar, but not exactly the same.
You've probably seen dozens of old movies (it makes us cry that This is Spinal Tap now fits into that category) in which you see some obscure actor you've never seen in anything else, and you figure, "Ah, well. Poor guy must have been one-and-done."
If you think that about Harry Shearer, the man behind Derek Smalls, you would be dead wrong. Prior to Spinal Tap, he was an improv comic, comedy writer, and SNL cast member. He continued working with Guest and McKean in A Mighty Wind, a folk music mockumentary. Even if his face doesn't look familiar to you, you've almost certainly grown up hearing his voice.
Shearer's lent his vocal talents to roughly a bazillion characters on the longest-running scripted show on television. Yup, that's him as Ned Flanders, Mr. Burns, Smithers, Mr. Skinner, Dr. Hibbert, Lenny, Otto, Scratchy and dozens more. He even did the voice of Derek Smalls himself when Spinal Tap made an appearance on the show. A fictional character in a fictional band making an appearance on a fictional television program? That's pretty meta.
Nice burn, Marty.
The character of Marty DiBergi is one-of-a-kind. An actor (Rob Reiner) turned director is the director of this particular film, but portrays a second, fictional director within the film. Head swimming yet?
Welcome to the rabbit hole that is the world of the mockumentary. Rob Reiner wanted to be directly involved in the film, more than by just pointing a camera at his funny friends and yelling "cut" every so often. After all, he had the credentials to back it up. Reiner was one of the stars of All in the Family, one of the most popular sitcoms of all time. So he wasn't just some director who vainly wanted to pop himself into his own film because he could. Looking at you, Mr. Shyamalan.
And the inclusion of the director/interviewer within the film wasn't just a throw-away, either. Many other documentaries of the time were introduced by the film's director, who appeared on camera, and maybe even included footage of the director interviewing the film's subjects. So this technique lent an air of authenticity and made Spinal Tap seem more like an actual documentary.
MARTY: I wanted to capture the... the sights, the sounds, the smells of a hard-working rock band, on the road. And I got that; I got more, a lot more. But hey, enough of my yakkin'; whaddaya say? Let's boogie!
Through his one-on-one interviews with the band members, Marty's the vehicle through which the audience gets a ton of information about the inner workings of the band members' minds—at least what's left of them. He doesn't shy away from the tough stuff, getting the guys' reactions to bad reviews and probing into the very bad luck of a series of Spinal Tap's drummers.
We get to see the band's rise and fall (mostly fall) through the eyes of a third party who seems to think they're all as ridiculous as we do.
Still alive when the documentary begins, Mick is the band's latest drummer—and he can't say he wasn't warned. Marty's interviewing him while he's in the hotel bathtub:
MICK: When I did join, you know, they did ell me, they kind of took me aside and said, "Well, Mick. It's, you know, like this." And it did kind of freak me out a bit. But it can't always happen to every, can it. I mean, really…
MARTY: Because the law of averages…
MICK: The law of averages…
MARTY: Says you will survive.
Mick's hard core; he's all about sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Marty asks him what he'd do if he wasn't in the band:
MICK: As long as there's, you know, sex and drugs, I can do without the rock and roll.
The guy's not complicated.
Fun fact: Mick's name is most likely a mashup between the other Mick (and if you don't know who that is, we're not bothering to tell you) and Jean Shrimpton, a British supermodel who ruled the fashion world in the 1960s. If you were making up fake British names, it doesn't get more British than that. Except maybe Ross McLochness. Oh wait. That's Scottish.
Viv's the tripped-out keyboardist of the group, who gets one of movie's classic lines when asked by Marty about his philosophy of life; "Have a good time, all the time." Marty asks him what he'd do without rock and roll:
VIV: I'd probably get a bit stupid and start to make a fool of myself in public, 'cause there wouldn't be a stage to go on.
Viv's an early adopter of computer games—we see him on the tour bus playing some primitive version of a Pac-Man type planet-eating game.
Even Nigel's fiery temper is no match for Ian's. Did you see the way he destroyed that TV? And "cleaned up" that kitchen table?
Most of the time, he seems like he could be an earl, or a duke, or something. He's got that posh English accent, the short, finely coifed hair (compared to the other guys at least). He's in a position of authority, he's always in charge of keeping the peace. You'd think this guy would really have it together. But then he reaches for that bat of his:
IAN: Certainly, in the topsy-turvy world of heavy rock, having a good solid piece of wood in your hand is often useful.
Even sans bat, Ian has shown himself to be something of a loose cannon. He freaks out about the album cover. He freaks out about the Stonehenge thing. He freaks out about Jeanine.
IAN: Look, look...I...I...this is...this is my position okay? I am not managing it with you or any other woman, especially one that dresses like an Australian's nightmare. So f*** you!!!
JEANINE: F*** you too!!!
IAN: And f*** all of you...because I quit! Alright? That's it! Good night!!!
"Freaking out" seems to be Ian's natural state. That's what makes him entertaining to watch. If he really were just chill from start to finish, there wouldn't be enough contrast between himself and the members of Tap, who usually strike us as if they are heavily sedated. Ian needs to have that second, angrier gear, to remind us just how laid back the boys actually are.
To be fair, though, Jeanine does dress like an Australian's nightmare.
There was once this little band called The Beatles. Ever heard of 'em? They had a handful of admiring fans. Everything was going smoothly until John Lennon's main squeeze, Yoko Ono, started coming between him and the other members of the band.
Gee—ya think Spinal Tap was making any sort of reference to that?
Basically, Jeanine = Yoko. Because this film's intent was to skewer both documentaries and rock bands alike, it's pretty clear that the similarity between this fictional character and her real-life counterpart was hardly coincidental. The parallel was drawn intentionally—again, to make this feel as much as possible like a true story, as well as to poke fun at rock stars and all their silliness.
And Jeanine certainly personifies "silliness." She can't pronounce "Dolby." From her outfits, to her astrology, to her drawings of animal masks, it's obvious that she's not the brilliant mind that David seems to think she is. Sample suggestion from Jeanine:
JEANINE: Uh, what I've done is to arrange a whole load of charts.
DAVID: Wait till you see this, wait till you see this, this is so great.
JEANINE: The band's sign is Virgo, and we see it's Saturn in the third house, all right, and it is a bit rocky. But, because Virgo is one of the most highly intelligent signs of the Zodiac, we're gonna pull through this, with great bond.
Under this guiding philosophy, the band gets booked at an Air Force base and a puppet show (not even top billing). Nigel quits in disgust.
Once Nigel returns, it's not clear what will happen to Jeanine. However, in a 1992 real fake interview with Q magazine, the band reveals that "she makes and sells Irish sweaters in her shop Potato Republic […], sells leprechaun key rings and ceremonial candles in The Crow's Wing, runs a new age boutique called Krystals 'n Kandles (alternately The Drippery), and has started a business that works out the star sign of your computer" (source).
That sounds about right.
Bobbi's the hostess at a party that kicks off the band's U.S. tour. Working in the artist-relations department of the band's label, Polymer Records, she's a parody of the smooth-talking, glammed up, kissy face, phony music biz type. A self-described "hostess with the mostest," she tells Nigel not to talk at the party, just to "shut up and look smart." Probably not a bad career move for Nigel.
Bobbi's the one who has to explain to Ian why their record label thinks the band's album cover is offensive and sexist; he doesn't see it, so she spells it out for him.
BOBBI: Listen umm... they don't like the cover; they don't like the cover.
IAN: Uh huh, well that is certainly straight.
BOBBI: They find it very offensive and very sexist.
IAN: Well what exactly...do you find offensive, I mean, what's offensive?
BOBBI: Ian, you put a greased naked woman...
BOBBI: ...on all fours...
BOBBI: ...with a dog collar around her neck...
IAN: ...with a dog collar...
BOBBI: ...and a leash...
IAN: ...and a leash...
BOBBI: ...and a man's arm extended out up to here holding on to the leash and pushing a black glove in her face to sniff it. You don't find that offensive, you don't find that sexist?
Bobbi probably wasn't the first person to say "Money talks and bulls*** walks," but she's undoubtedly the most quoted.
Best. Name. Ever.
Sir Denis is the head of Polymer Records. He kicks off the band's tour with: "And so say all of us—Tap into America!" Sir Denis got the "Sir" for founding a camp for "pale young boys" called Hoggwood.
During flashback scenes, we get quick glimpses of the band's unfortunate former drummers as described by Nigel and David. This is one of the film's running jokes, and we fear for Mick every time the band's on stage.
An original member of the Thamesmen and Spinal Tap, Stumpy died in a "bizarre gardening accident." When asked about it, Nigel says, "It was really one of those things the authorities said, 'Well, best leave it unsolved.'"
Childs was the band's second drummer, replacing gardening victim Stumpy Pepys. He died from choking on vomit, which, as the band helpfully points out, was not his own. Exactly whose vomit was never determined by the police. As Nigel so aptly put it, "You can't dust for vomit."
Replacing Childs, Bond played with the band for three years before spontaneously combusting onstage. Nigel described it: "He just was like a flash of green light, and that was it. Nothing was left. Well, there was a little green globule on his drum seat. It was a small stain, actually."
You know it's gonna be good when it's Dana Carvey and Billy Crystal.
These guys have cameos as waiter dressed up as mimes who serve appetizers at the opening tour party. It's a small but brilliant bit.
MORTY THE MIME: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. How come you got so much here?
MIME WAITER: I don't know, they're not eating it.
MORTY THE MIME: Did you do the wind?
MIME WAITER: I did the wind, I did the wind.
MORTY THE MIME: No, you don't push the wind away, the wind comes at you. Okay, change those, get the little dwarf cannolis. Come on, don't talk. Mime is money.
The Mime Waiter's not a pro—all he seems to do is point at his tray and point to his mouth.
Translation: eat these.
The film's loaded with cameos that all make a huge comic impression because of the great actors Reiner chose for them. Bruno Kirby plays the limo driver taking the boys to a gig. He's a Sinatra buff, who tries to explain Sinatra's appeal to the band before they roll up the limo window to shut him up. But doesn't the band also have an effect on their audience like Sinatra, asks Marty?
DRIVER: But it's...it's a passing thing...it's uh.... I mean I would never tell them this but this is uh...this is a fad.
Never, ever compare Spinal Tap to Old Blue Eyes.
In another scene-stealing cameo, Fred Willard plays the officer who welcomes the band to their gig at Lindberg Air Force Base.
LT. HOOKSTRATTEN: Fine, may I start by saying how thrilled we are to have you here, we are such fans of your music, and all of your records.
DEREK: That's great.
LT. HOOKSTRATTEN: I am not speaking of yours personally, but the whole genre of the rock and roll…
The totally square lieutenant requests a slow dance. The guys play "Sex Farm Woman." Well, it's slower than some of their numbers.