DOES FOR ROCK AND ROLL WHAT “THE SOUND OF MUSIC” DID FOR HILLS.
In 2002, This Is Spinal Tap was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress. It’s not hard to see why. The film has become a template for an entire genre of “mockumentaries” and numerous rock musicians have talked about mistaking it for a real documentary and wondering how the filmmakers could get everything so right. The movie is now part of our vernacular; any rock band that goes off the rails are inviting comparisons to Spinal Tap. Few films have connected with its subject matter in such a profound way.
The movie opens with an introduction by documentary filmmaker Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner). He’s been following the British rock group Spinal Tap on their 1982 summer tour in America. They’ve just released a new album, “Smell the Glove”, and DiBergi fuses interviews with concert footage and backstage encounters. The band’s been playing since the late 1960s when they were more folk than rock and they’re now going through a slump; most media outlets think of them as “whatever happened to…” acts. The sexist cover art of “Smell the Glove” becomes an obstacle as major retailers are wary of promoting the album. The tour takes a turn for the worse as Spinal Tap is booked into increasingly smaller venues… and the band members are headed for a break-up.
Heartfelt love for the history of the genre
Prior to making this film, Reiner was best known as “Meathead” Stivic on All in the Family; This Is Spinal Tap was his directing debut and the first of many either critically renowned or commercially popular movies he made in the ’80s. The fictional band first appeared in a 1979 pilot for a TV show that never materialized, so Reiner, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer had years preparing for this movie, which shows. They are perfectly convincing as a group of people who’ve worked together for a long while and developed a certain relationship – and rapport on stage.
McKean, Guest and Shearer all know how to play their instruments, and everything in the movie, script and songs, is the result of their collaboration (together with Reiner). What is also obvious is their heartfelt love for the history of the genre. The reason why all those real-life rockers connected with so much in the movie is because the filmmakers have stayed so close to their world. Most aspects of heavy metal is so ripe for satire that subtle humor is all you need to earn laughs. It’s all in details, like the fact that Spinal Tap has had 37 previous band members (including an unspecified number of drummers who all died in freak accidents) and the group’s bizarre attempts to create unique stage designs (such as the unfortunately miniscule Stonehenge set).
The actors are wonderful as the clueless Brits; their monologues, as well as dialogues with Reiner, reveal a hilariously empty pretentiousness. Some of the funniest scenes are with Guest as Nigel who shows Marty the amplifier that goes to “11”, and plays a lovely little tune whose title is… revealing.
Still, a little uneven, a trait the movie shares with every other mockumentary that this gang has put together, from Waiting for Guffman (1997) to For Your Consideration (2006). But they sure knew their target – just ask Metallica who released their own black album a decade after Spinal Tap’s.
This Is Spinal Tap 1984-U.S. 82 min. Color. Produced by Karen Murphy. Directed by Rob Reiner. Screenplay, Songs: Rob Reiner, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest. Cast: Michael McKean (David St. Hubbins), Christopher Guest (Nigel Tufnel), Harry Shearer (Derek Smalls), Rob Reiner (Marty DiBergi), Tony Hendra, June Chadwick… Fran Drescher. Cameos: Billy Crystal, Bruno Kirby, Ed Begley, Jr., Fred Willard, Anjelica Huston, Dana Carvey.
Trivia: Followed by a TV special in 1992 and a short feature in 2009; the band also reunited in the 1990s for concerts. The film was rereleased in 1995 with new scenes.
Quote: “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… Well, this piece is called “Lick My Love Pump.” (Guest playing his little tune)
Last word: “We dreamed that it would get released, first of all. You have to understand, we were with a company, Embassy Pictures, that was on its way to bankruptcy at the time. They had released two other pictures that year – ‘Parasite’ and ‘Paradise’. By the same token, I do remember, when we were pitching the film in the offices of the mighty in this town, we had made a 20-minute demo of the film, and the lights would come up after they saw the 20-minute demo and you’ve never seen blanker stares in your life. We just kept saying, ‘No, look, this is a story everybody understands. This story has been shoved down everybody’s throat by Rolling Stone for the past 25 years. This is not rocket science we’re doing here.’ And so I always felt, if we got a shot, if we got a crack at it, the audience would respond. Not to the degree that it would be seen decades later. Nobody dreams that.” (Shearer, About.com)