This Is Spinal Tap

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), RobReiner (Marty Di Bergi), Harry Shearer (Derek Smalls), June Chadwick (JeaninePettibone), R.J. Parnell (Mick Shrimpton), David Kaff (Viv Savage), Tony Hendra (IanFaith), 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 regularpart 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, outdatedBritish heavy metal rockers on their last American tour. Because there have been dozens ofone-hour programs with aged rock stars, from Ozzy Osborne to Ted Nugent to themembers of Styx, pouring out stories of their trials and tribulations in the limelight, "ThisIs 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 mainstars, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer. Reiner plays MartyDiBergi, a documentary filmmaker whose camera follows the members of Spinal Tap ontheir 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 andperformed all the music) play the three mainstays of the band, respectively lead guitaristNigel Tufnel, vocalist David St. Hubbins, and bassist Derek Smalls. There is no consistentband member on drums because, in one of the movie's long-running jokes, the drummerkeeps dying under mysterious circumstances (one dies in a gardening accident, anotherspontaneously combusts, and another chokes to death on vomit, although no one seems toknow whose).

The members of Spinal Tap resemble Ozzy Osbrne's first band, Black Sabbath, althoughthere 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 andshaggy hair, the members of Spinal Tap are inherent parodies of themselves. There is noway to take them seriously, especially when they are attempting to wax philosophic duringnumerous on-camera interviews; yet, somehow they are oddly intriguing.

The film follows their doomed American tour, which grows steadily worse and worse as itprogresses. Various shows are cancelled, and the band goes from playing 10,000-seat arenasto 1,000-seat arenas, to tiny venues with maybe a dozen fans. The cover art for their newalbum gets nixed because it is considered offensive ("What's wrong with being sexy?" oneband members asks when someone tells him the cover is "sexist"), and they wind up withan album that has an all-black cover with no writing on it. No one shows up to their recordsignings, 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 thekind 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 areinevitably 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, replicaof 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 theridiculous things they say and do is not far from what spills from the mouths of rockcelebrities every day. "This Is Spinal Tap" is one of the best examples of improvisationalfilmmaking done right. The improvisational nature of the material gives the film an addedelement of realism in that none of the scenes feel rehearsed; instead, they play like real lifecaught on camera. It is truly inspired satire, the kind that plays completely straight, yet isabsolutely 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 badfor them when they are sitting by themselves in a record store with no fans looking forautographs. Although the movie is hilarious, I think it is the undeniable human nature of theloser characters that has kept the movie alive for so long.

This is Spinal Tap:Special Edition DVD

AudioDolby Digital5.1 Surround
SubtitlesEnglish,French, Spanish
Supplements Audiocommentary 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
DistributorMetroGoldwyn Mayer

"This Is Spinal Tap" has been given a new anamorphictransfer in the film's original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 (the earlier Criterion release wasnonanamorphic). 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. Simplyput, it looks exactly like what it purports to be: a somewhat grainy, low-budgetdocumentary about a rock group no one cares about. The transfer captures the film'slow-brow essence very well, but still gives it a nice look, with well-saturated colors and nodirt or blemishes from the source print.

Another nice aspect of this new Special Edition disc is theremastered Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack. Some might argue that this takes awayfrom 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 in5.1-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 pilingcomplaint upon complaint about the documentary and how bad it makes them look. Thereis a brief interview with director Rob Reiner as his character, documentary filmmaker MaryDiBergi (which includes clips of the Tap members at a press conference deriding hisfilmmaking). 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-'60shippie 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 thanparody. The best supplement on the disc, however, is the extensive section of outtakes anddeleted scenes. There are 14 of them in all, which constitutes over an hour of additionalfootage. One can see why some of it was dropped, but other sequences (including ahilarious extended sequence with Bruno Kirby's limo driver) are just as good as what wasleft in the final cut.

©2000 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (4)

James Kendrick

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