Now: The Rocker (2008)
Then: This is Spinal Tap (1984)
Band on the Rise
In The Rocker, Rainn Wilson plays a drummer booted from his own heavy-metal band, Vesuvius, just before they hit it big; decades later, his nephew’s need for a drummer puts him, unexpectedly, back in the limelight. In This is Spinal Tap , a heavy-metal band’s fading fortunes are captured by the unblinking eye of a documentary camera. What do these rock-mocking comedies have in common? And, more importantly, is teased hair still funny?
In The Rocker, Wilson’s Robert “Fish” Fishman is a washed-up mess given a second chance, when his nephew’s band, A.D.D., becomes an overnight sensation after a semi-nude rehearsal session ends up on YouTube. The flash-in-the-pan gimmick gets them notice, and they find their fanbase growing larger and larger. In Spinal Tap, a legendary metal band is captured on the downslide, with founding members Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) playing smaller and smaller venues on a tour in which one venue gives them second-billing after a puppet show. The Rocker‘s rise to success puts it ahead in the feel-good department, but, frankly, failure’s always funnier, and Spinal Tap‘s tour is hilariously horrible.
“What’s Wrong with Being Sexy?”
The Rocker provides one thing Spinal Tap
doesn’t — a rock world where women are more than just
groupies. Emma Stone’s bassist is a vital part of A.D.D. and Christina
Applegate, playing the mom of A.D.D.’s singer-songwriter Teddy Geiger, notes
that she used to play guitar in a band in her youth. In Spinal Tap, the female
characters are either screeching harpies (Fran Drescher’s P.R. maven Bobbi
Flekman) or hangers-on. You could argue that Spinal Tap‘s mocking the sexism of heavy metal… but then again, it doesn’t do much to refute it, either; The Rocker‘s more
modern sense of gender politics is a lot easier to take than
Spinal Tap‘s merry misogyny.
Rocking and Mocking
The Rocker and This is Spinal Tap both get their biggest laughs poking fun at the
world of rock. In The Rocker, we learn Fish’s old band, Vesuvius, have devolved into staggering, boozy, English-accented (despite being from Cleveland) dinosaurs
who lip-sync in concert. But while Vesuvius evoke big-hair, big-riff bands from
Poison to Bon Jovi, Spinal Tap gets in very sharp, specific jabs at everything
from Led Zepplin’s pretensions to Whitesnake’s album covers. The Rocker gets a
few laughs at the idea of rock excess, but Spinal Tap flays heavy metal’s
delusions of grandeur to the bone.
Wilson’s gradual realization that he has to change his
ways makes The Rocker more heartwarming, but Spinal Tap has no interest in
warming our hearts whatsoever: McKean, Guest and Shearer start stupid and
stay that way. The Rocker has its
heart in a good place, but — thankfully — the actor-writers of Spinal Tap
never worried about us liking the characters, just laughing at them.