Tuesday, April 26, 2005

#12: This Is Spinal Tap

This Is Spinal Tap, 1984, directed by Rob Reiner, written by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Rob Reiner. I first saw this movie during the summer of 1990, on VHS. This was between middle school and high school, and I was taking a class on satire at Duke University. Nerd camp. Anyway, I guess I was pretty impressionable, because the things on the syllabus for that class have stayed with me (Dr. Strangelove, James Thurber stories, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," Being There, just off the top of my head). And of course, This Is Spinal Tap. So it's hard to write objectively about the movie; I don't go around spouting quotes (I probably did for a while after seeing it, though), and I've seen it fewer than ten times, so I don't think this would qualify as a real-deal obsession. But This Is Spinal Tap had a lot to do with shaping my sense of humor. It's always floating around in the back of my mind.

I'm not going to talk a lot about the movie itself, because I don't really know how to approach it. For the three or four people on the planet who haven't seen it: Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer are the three lead members of Spinal Tap, an English heavy metal band on tour in the U.S.. The movie is a mockumentary (or "mockurockumentary," if you will), directed by Marty deBergi, played by Rob Reiner. Spinal Tap's lineup:

  • David St. Hubbins — Lead Guitar
  • Nigel Tufnel — Lead Guitar
  • Derek Smalls — Bass
  • Viv Savage — Keyboards
  • Mick Shrimpton — Drums

Or that's their lineup on this tour; as we're informed, they've had 37 members over the years. David and Nigel have always been in the band, though, going back to their origins as a skiffle group called The Originals (they had to change the name to the New Originals when they found out there was already a band called The Originals). Over the course of the tour, the band falls apart; that's about it for a story. It's all shot handheld on 16mm, and is designed to look and feel like Gimme Shelter or The Last Waltz; a mix of concert footage, interviews, and backstage footage. Only it's all fake, and it's all hilarious.

Watching it now, the songs seem much sillier than they did in 1990; with the exception of "Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight," there's nothing I could see listening to for any length of time. The band is still confused. This time around, I really appreciated Ian Faith, their manager (played by Tony Hendra, who Adam informs me went on to edit Spy magazine). He'd make a great political flack; when Marty asks him if Spinal Tap's popularity is waning, he says, "I wouldn't say that. I'd say their appeal is becoming more selective." And the look on his face when the band sees what he's done to their Stonehenge prop is priceless.

One thing I noticed for the first time on this go-round is how strange the movie is structurally. To the extent there's an inciting incident, it's Jeanine's arrival, and that happens just over halfway through the movie. As a result, the last half is much more plot-heavy than the first. This would make it drag, if you didn't love the guys in the band by the time she shows up. As it is, I think the weird structure makes it feel more like a real documentary, where the crew had been filming for a while when they lucked into catching something dramatic and interesting on camera.

Anyway, as I say it's difficult to judge this movie objectively anymore. Some of the jokes I loved on first viewing, I've heard eight million times since then, and they don't strike me as that funny anymore. But that's not the joke's fault. The beauty of this DVD is the wealth of information about how the film got made, and the extra footage and promotional material that I hadn't seen before, so I'm going to talk more about that. If you haven't seen the main film, jeez, man, go see it now.

How it got made: In the late 70's, Rob Reiner had a sketch comedy show, and Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer were guests on a skit that made fun of another television show, some sort of music thing. Reiner played Wolfman Jack and McKean, Guest, and Shearer played a band called Spinal Tap. They didn't have characters, really, they were just playing a song. But during a commercial break, a smoke machine broke, spraying them with hot oil; while the prop guy tried to fix it, they started improvising in character. In 1982, Reiner pitched the idea of a movie about this band to some people at Monarch Films; they gave him between $50,000 and $60,000 (depending on who you listen to) to write a screenplay. He, McKean, Guest, and Shearer dicked around on a script for about a week, and decided that nobody would be able to see what they were trying to do if it were written out. So they took the money, added some money of their own, and made a twenty-minute demo film, called "Spinal Tap: The Last Tour." It's included on the DVD; many jokes that ended up in the movie are already there. One thing that I'm glad they changed: Rob Reiner is wearing a big green cowboy hat, rather than the USS Coral Sea cap he ended up with. Monarch saw the short and said no thank you, so for about six months, they took the short to every studio and everyone passed. Until Karen Murphy at Embassy Pictures decided to give them a shot. They shot the movie in just under a month, all on 16mm, using only a loose outline; at the end, they had about 40 hours of footage; typical for a documentary, but a lot for a feature. Everyone was in the editing room; they put together first a 4 1/2 hour cut, which didn't include any interview footage, just backstage and concert stuff, and then they cut, cut, and cut. After test screenings, they cut further; the final cut is 82 minutes long. It opened to mediocre business, until it got a good review in the New York Times; everyone on the commentary tracks says it was from Vincent Canby but it looks to me like Janet Maslin wrote their review. And from then on: success!

The DVD has about an hour of footage that didn't make the movie; this is mostly different than the hour or so of footage that's on the MGM DVD. It's pretty incredible to see new stuff; it has the timecodes from the 4 1/2 hour cut, so you can see where it used to fit. My personal favorite is Derek Smalls talking about his solo album, "It's A Smalls World," which is all bass:

It's about the bass as the symbol of...the basis of mankind being common humanity, you see. And, uh, there're some songs about..it's, it's kind of political, it gets into, you know, there wouldn't be unemployment in Britain if all the Pakis went back. And things like that. But basically it just takes the idea of all bass as our... bas-is.



  • The movie was entirely filmed in Los Angeles county; no travel at all.

  • One of the last hurdles Karen Murphy had to deal with before getting a greenlight was convincing the executives at Embassy that shooting on 16mm wouldn't be too difficult. She describes a production meeting in which an executive said, "Now, you know, 16mm is very tiny film. It's very small. How on earth are you planning cutting film that small?" She choked back her laughter and told him that, as it happened, she knew a guy in England who had experience editing just that kind of tiny film, and he was willing to work on the picture. A producer who can keep a straight face in that kind of meeting: that's the kind of producer I want to work with.

  • There was apparently a rift between McKean, Guest, and Shearer, and Tony Hendra; Hendra put an ad in the papers for a solo comedy show in which he listed himself as "the creator of Spinal Tap."

  • Most of the film's budget (between 2 and 3 million) went to Reiner, McKean, Shearer, and Guest. Because they were all union members, and had to be paid guild minimums for each of their roles: Reiner was a director, an actor, and a writer, the others were paid as writers, actors, and songwriters; all at the minimums, but with that many roles, the money added up quickly.

  • The four writers went to the WGA to try to get some sort of credit for the other actors, since all of the dialogue was improvised, but the WGA wouldn't let them do it. This is the same reason Rodriguez recently left the DGA; these guys stayed in the unions instead.

  • It took Spinal Tap years to find out who owned the rights to the band name before their 1992 tour; Embassy and Monarch films were long gone and as part of their deal with Embassy, they'd sold away all rights to the characters. It's still not really clear who owned them when--the Criterion DVD has New Line Home Video's logo, but MGM did the most recent DVD. Anyway, as part of some Byzantine licensing scheme, the members of Spinal Tap are allowed to use the characters now, but only if they appear as Spinal Tap at least once every three years. If they don't, the rights revert. So they literally have to play a concert, or make a television appearance, or something, every three years, or they can never be Spinal Tap again.

  • The other actors presumably don't own the rights to their characters. But Rob Reiner made a short called "Tommy Pischedda: A Man And His Music," about the Frank Sinatra-loving limo driver played by Bruno Kirby. (the movie's not on the IMDB! But Reiner talks about it on the commentary track). Pischedda plays a much bigger part in the 4 1/2 hour version of the movie; the band gets him high and he sings "All The Way" in his underwear and black dress socks before passing out on the hotel room floor.

  • Billy Crystal has a much longer scene that didn't make the movie (he's the mime caterer at the opening party). If you like Billy Crystal, that's good news. If you don't, there's still a good joke in it; the name of his company is "Shut Up and Eat," and he explains to DeBergi that his job is to make people eat by making them feel guilty "because this food, it's not too good." Also, note that one of the waiters is a very young Dana Carvey.

  • Another lost scene that shows up here: Derek Smalls showing Marty DeBergi a clip from a movie he appeared in, Marco Zamboni's 1976 sci-fi spectacular Roma '79. Which looks like it owes a lot to Alphaville.

  • It seems to be a rule that if you're recording a commentary track, at some point you say, "I was living at the Chateau Marmont at the time." So does anyone want to sponsor me there?


Anonymous said...

i find the mgm special edition release to be very disappointing i think compared to the criterion. the criterion version treated it solely as it is: a mockumentary. it did not pretend to actually do what it was pretending to be. i find that when you get oversaturated with spinal tap in character, it gets frustrating and tiresome. plus then you get the people who really take it seriously and believe that they are an actual group. i don't know... it's that fine line between stupid and clever i guess =]

Matthew Dessem said...

I agree with you up to a point -- I thought that their guest spot on the Simpsons was pretty dumb, for instance. But I liked their commentary on the MGM version -- particularly the running joke about all the minor characters being dead. Remember--they've got to do something in character like that every few years or the rights to the characters revert to whoever owns the Embassy catalog.

kedorg said...

first off, thanks for doing these reviews.
I was lucky to see This is Spinal Tap in the theaters when it was re-released a few years back. getting a chance to see it on the big screen was a treat. my 2 cents- the bonus dvd is worth the extra footage.
I didnt know about the 3-year rule for keeping the rights- very interesting. I also saw spinal tap play in SF in 1992 for their "break like the wind tour". pretty awesome. the drummer (they called him 'jim the caucasin drummer) did not explode and the keyboard player was not viv savage. my last trivial tidbit is that I saw Viv Savage in 1990? at the Omni in oakland,ca. he was in a band called Model Citizens and they always included Viv's under their band name for publicity. During the soundcheck this shaggy roadie came out to test keyboards. It was viv. I forget his real name, but his band sucked. have a good time all the time.

Anonymous said...

I've only seen the actual movie (many times) and I love it. Some notes on Tony Hendra: He was a National Lampoon editor in the seventies, and has written a couple of books, one a memoir called Father Joe. His daughter Jessica then wrote a book called How to Cook Your Daughter--title based on a Lampoon piece Hendra wrote--that accuses her father of sexual abuse.

Matthew Dessem said...


I think if I saw Viv Savage I would spontaneously combust. Have a good time all the time yourself!

Matthew Dessem said...


That's really creepy about Hendra and his daughter.

Anonymous said...

I had never seen this before. I avoided it because I thought that unless I was a fan of heavy metal music, I wouldn’t appreciate the satire. What I overlooked was the degree of synergy that exists among the branches of mass media. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a fan of the music or not. If you have ever picked up a copy of Rolling Stone (or Time or Newsweek for that matter), you are familiar with the material being satirized here.

I think that comedy, more than any other genre, works best communally. The laughs come easier, ring louder, last longer when I’m part of a group. The litmus test of an outstanding comedy for me, therefore, is whether or not it provokes laughter while I’m viewing it at home alone. This Is Spinal Tap did exactly that. It is funny as hell. For this newbie, the humor remains sharp and timeless. In fact, after 23 years, the film doesn’t feel dated at all. The costumes and settings may scream mid-eighties, but I think the documentary framework allows us to view this as a piece of “history”.

I happened to watched this and Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies back to back. They are vastly different films, but both contain largely improvised performances. Improvised dialogue seems to lend an additional layer of authenticity to a scene. It is, in one sense, a real conversation being filmed. While Rob Reiner heightens this feeling of authenticity with camerawork and film stock that fool us into thinking we are watching a documentary, Leigh’s camera is as unobtrusive as possible (mid-shots, long takes, stationary camera) which make us feel like we are eavesdropping. Both approaches are very convincing.

“It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever” took me back to junior year high school English where we were taught a Horseshoe Theory of Opposites. Love/hate, madness/genius, comedy/tragedy, etc. are indeed opposites, but they lie at opposite poles of a horseshoe and are not as far apart as most people think. It doesn’t apply all the time, but often enough that it has stuck with me.

Anyway, Matthew, now there are only two or three people in the world who haven’t seen This Is Spinal Tap.

Matthew Dessem said...


Glad you enjoyed it. Definitely one of the funniest movies ever made. Improvised dialogue can add a layer of realism, but I suspect that many of the lines in This Is Spinal Tap were honed over multiple takes. They're just too precise & verbally funny to be completely improvised. And some of the same jokes appear on the original 16 mm demo film in pretty much their identical forms. Compare to something like "Curb Your Enthusiasm" where the dialogue is entirely improvised and you'll see a difference.

Anonymous said...

Ha! I also saw This Is Spinal Tap at nerd camp at Duke in a satire class - I think it must have been either in 1991 or 1992, though. What are the odds?

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to point out, script-wise, 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' is less improvised than 'Spinal Tap' or the other Guest movies. I say this because the outlines are roughly the same length (under ten pages); for 'Curb', that outline is one episode, for 'Tap', that outline provided a four and a half hour cut (without interviews).

Unknown said...

See what Janine herself thought about it all in my interview with June Chadwick...