The Spinal Tap sequel is a bad idea – rock is beyond parody

We all now know that the lives of rock stars are funnier than fiction. And that's why Rob Reiner's new film will struggle to be relevant

This Is Spinal Tap: why a sequel is a bad idea
This Is Spinal Tap: why a sequel is a bad idea Credit: Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

This Is Spinal Tap is one of my favourite films of all time. It’s sharply written, and acted with a deathly seriousness which is all the more effective given that it satirises the excesses and absurdities of rock music. I can’t remember anything else which had quite such a profound effect on my formative years: me and my friends would often bark quotes from the film at each other, mostly at inappropriate moments – “Hello Cleveland!” we would shout when entering the hallowed quarters of the Ipswich branch of Weigh and Save.

And its influence on film and TV comedy was considerable, too. Directed by Rob Reiner and released in 1984, This is Spinal Tap was an early adopter of the mockumentary format which has been a considerable influence on film and TV comedy ever since (pedants would argue that Neil Innes’s Beatles spoof The Rutles got there first, but this had nothing like the same reach). Without Reiner’s film, we would never have had Modern Family, Summer Heights High, or, most famously, The Office, nor the subsequent films created by the original film’s star and co-writer Christopher Guest which include the sublime Best in Show and A Mighty Wind.

And yet despite the brilliance of the original, I can’t say that I am thrilled by the prospect of a sequel. Reiner has just announced that The Return of Spinal Tap will start in February and that there will be a roster of guest stars, including Paul McCartney and Elton John. This strikes fear in my heart. The original did feature cameos, but they were from prodigious comic talents such as Billy Crystal and Dana Carvey who brought their own comedy circuit peculiarities to the film. A-list rock royalty can’t hope to offer the same sort of creative excellence.

It’s very rare that celebrity names bring very much to big films. Look at Absolutely Fabulous, the terrifically sophisticated sitcom about the fashion industry which ran into serious trouble when the big-screen version attracted such weighty figures as Jean-Paul Gaultier and Ozwald Boateng. The strength of the original, the idea that Patsy and Edina were successful but in a very contained and silly world, was eroded when they were suddenly thrust on a vast and soulless international stage. The use of McCartney and Elton – and no doubt there will be others, suggests a sort of smugness, an idea that everyone is in on the joke – such decisions almost always kill the humour.

But there is also a more fundamental problem with this sequel – and that is the landscape on which it arrives. Certainly, it feels as if the mockumentary format is starting to feel passe. It used to work because the idea of being on camera was such a rarity, afforded to only a privileged few. We used to be able to believe that a paper merchant from Slough would act like a complete idiot in front of the camera because he was naive about the way the TV industry operated. Now everyone is so much savvier: any Tom, Dick or Harry can feign emotion on a reality TV show, or if they are particularly smart can woo Gen Z-ers on YouTube. Nowadays, the idea that someone can appear on camera without any sense of guile or self-awareness feels unlikely.

Music legends Spinal Tap pose for a portrait in Hollywood, California Credit: Aaron Rapoport/Corbis/Getty Images

When the original Spinal Tap film was released we treated our musicians with a fair amount of reverence, and the material that Guest and the other writers proffered – the ridiculous chutzpah of Stonehenge, the inappropriate use of dwarfs - felt fresh (unless you were an avid fan of Rick Wakeman). The idea of rock and roll excess – the stories of Ozzy Osbourne eating bats live on stage or Keith Richards having a full-body blood transfusion were certainly out there, but not so readily available in an analogue age. Furthermore, the rock mockumentary has become a subgenre in its own right, with the BBC’s The Life of Rock With Brian Pern about the frontman of a progressive 1970s rock group called Thotch and Flight of the Conchords, a New Zealand musical comedy duo whose spoof songs such as Pencils in the Wind reach heights that are brilliant in their poetic badness.

However, the biggest issue with making a Spinal Tap film in this day and age is that rock now feels as if it is beyond parody. In fact, so accurate was Reiner’s parody that many rockers – from Sting to The Edge – have praised its authenticity. There is also the rise of the rock documentary. It has been a slow and steady ascent, ever since Metallica went through group therapy in Some Kind of Monster (2004), offering a kind of darkness which made Spinal Tap feel painfully accurate – “When I was running this morning, I was thinking about seeing you today, and the word “f---” just comes up so much.” Hilarious yes, but also the exact words that came out of the mouth of Metallica’s drummer, Lars Ulrich.

Matt (left) and Luke Goss of boy band Bros Credit: Isabel Infantes/PA Wire

Very recently, rock documentaries have attracted a lot of media attention and many have been very successful, quenching our never-ending thirst for nostalgia. One of these, Bros – After the Screaming Stops, also sated our ghoulish desire to see former idols in seasoned middle-age, hanging on to past glories while – in the case of Matt and Luke Goss – trying to prove that their creativity was on a par with Schoenberg. To quote Matt: “I was a rectangle and Luke was a rectangle and we made a square that became a fortress.

With very real pearls of wisdom such as these, it’s difficult to see where Rob Reiner’s film is likely to go in terms of shocking us or making us laugh. The fact is that life is not only stranger than fiction, it is often also much funnier, too.