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This Is Spinal Tap
Director: Rob Reiner
Screenplay: Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Rob Reiner, and Harry Shearer
Stars: Christopher Guest (Nigel Tufnel), Michael McKean (David St. Hubbins), Rob Reiner (Marty Di Bergi), Harry Shearer (Derek Smalls), June Chadwick (Jeanine Pettibone), R.J. Parnell (Mick Shrimpton), David Kaff (Viv Savage), Tony Hendra (Ian Faith), Fran Drescher (Bobbi Flekman)
MPAA Rating:R
Year of Release: 1984
Country: USA
Spinal Tap Poster

Now that VH-1's "Behind the Music" and other rockumentaries are an increasingly regular part of the cable TV landscape, Rob Reiner's directorial debut, the 1984 mock documentary "This Is Spinal Tap," seems even more dead-on in its parody of a group of aging, outdated British heavy metal rockers on their last American tour. Because there have been dozens of one-hour programs with aged rock stars, from Ozzy Osborne to Ted Nugent to the members of Styx, pouring out stories of their trials and tribulations in the limelight, "This Is Spinal Tap" takes on an extra level of satire. It was, in many ways, ahead of its time. Almost prophetic.

The mostly improvised storyline was put together by Reiner and the movie's three main stars, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer. Reiner plays Marty DiBergi, a documentary filmmaker whose camera follows the members of Spinal Tap on their attempted comeback tour through the United States in support of their latest album, "Smell the Glove."

Guest, McKean, and Shearer (all three of whom, along with Reiner, also wrote and performed all the music) play the three mainstays of the band, respectively lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel, vocalist David St. Hubbins, and bassist Derek Smalls. There is no consistent band member on drums because, in one of the movie's long-running jokes, the drummer keeps dying under mysterious circumstances (one dies in a gardening accident, another spontaneously combusts, and another chokes to death on vomit, although no one seems to know whose).

The members of Spinal Tap resemble Ozzy Osbrne's first band, Black Sabbath, although there is plenty of early '80s metal bands like Motley Crue and Def Leppard mixed in. Dressed in skin-tight spandex pants, leather vests, and sporting gaudy eye make-up and shaggy hair, the members of Spinal Tap are inherent parodies of themselves. There is no way to take them seriously, especially when they are attempting to wax philosophic during numerous on-camera interviews; yet, somehow they are oddly intriguing.

The film follows their doomed American tour, which grows steadily worse and worse as it progresses. Various shows are cancelled, and the band goes from playing 10,000-seat arenas to 1,000-seat arenas, to tiny venues with maybe a dozen fans. The cover art for their new album gets nixed because it is considered offensive ("What's wrong with being sexy?" one band members asks when someone tells him the cover is "sexist"), and they wind up with an album that has an all-black cover with no writing on it. No one shows up to their record signings, and at one point they get lost backstage trying to make their grand entrance.

The band's cheese-metal rock songs with titles like "Big Bottom" and "Hell Hole" are the kind of junk that, as one line from a song proudly declares, makes your eardrums bleed. The movie is sprinkled with wonderfully lurid stage performances by the band that are inevitably struck with some kind of embarrassing disaster (their show-stopping tune "Stonehenge" is ruined when the set designer builds an 18-inch, rather than 18-foot, replica of the famous stones).

First-time director Rob Reiner gets the tone and pitch of the mockumentary just right. Frighteningly enough, it is not hard to believe that Spinal Tap might be a real band, and the ridiculous things they say and do is not far from what spills from the mouths of rock celebrities every day. "This Is Spinal Tap" is one of the best examples of improvisational filmmaking done right. The improvisational nature of the material gives the film an added element of realism in that none of the scenes feel rehearsed; instead, they play like real life caught on camera. It is truly inspired satire, the kind that plays completely straight, yet is absolutely hilarious at the same time.

It is also testament to the talent of the three main stars that, despite the obvious parody, they create sympathetic characters out of the various band members. You actually feel bad for them when they are sitting by themselves in a record store with no fans looking for autographs. Although the movie is hilarious, I think it is the undeniable human nature of the loser characters that has kept the movie alive for so long.

This is Spinal Tap: Special Edition DVD

AudioDolby Digital 5.1 Surround
SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish
Supplements Audio commentary by the members of Spinal Tap
"Catching Up With Marty DiBergi" interview
14 rare outtakes
"Flower People" press conference
Spinal Tap on "The Joe Franklin Show"
Four music videos: "Gimme Some Money," "(Listen to) The Flower People," "Hell Hole," and "Big Bottom"
Original theatrical trailers
Six TV spots
DistributorMetro Goldwyn Mayer

"This Is Spinal Tap" has been given a new anamorphic transfer in the film's original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 (the earlier Criterion release was nonanamorphic). Even with the increased detail and general improvement in the transfer, the movie retains a certain distinct shoddiness that is inherent to its source material. Simply put, it looks exactly like what it purports to be: a somewhat grainy, low-budget documentary about a rock group no one cares about. The transfer captures the film's low-brow essence very well, but still gives it a nice look, with well-saturated colors and no dirt or blemishes from the source print.

Another nice aspect of this new Special Edition disc is the remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack. Some might argue that this takes away from the cheap documentary nature of the film, but I feel it opens it up and gives it new life (although I think the original 2.0 stereo soundtrack should have been included as well). Although Spinal Tap's songs are purposefully bad, they still sound very good in 5.1-channel surround, with nice imaging and good, solid bass.

Keeping in spirit with the film's mockumentary approach, the vast supplemental section on the disc plays as if the movie were the real thing. Therefore, we get a hilarious commentary track by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer in their Spinal Tap characters, spending most of the time piling complaint upon complaint about the documentary and how bad it makes them look. There is a brief interview with director Rob Reiner as his character, documentary filmmaker Mary DiBergi (which includes clips of the Tap members at a press conference deriding his filmmaking). The disc also includes some hilarious mock commercials featuring Spinal Tap, as well as four music videos, a press conference with the band members in their late-'60s hippie days, and an appearance on "The Joe Franklin Show." All of these "mock" supplements add to the sensation that "This Is Spinal Tap" is the real thing, rather than parody. The best supplement on the disc, however, is the extensive section of outtakes and deleted scenes. There are 14 of them in all, which constitutes over an hour of additional footage. One can see why some of it was dropped, but other sequences (including a hilarious extended sequence with Bruno Kirby's limo driver) are just as good as what was left in the final cut.

Overall Rating: (4)

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