This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

 

Highlights

  • Mockumentary film directed and co-written by Rob Reiner.
  • Starring Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer & Rob Reiner
  • Moderate Box Office performance but now regarded a modern Cult Classic
  • Fictional band at the time, but Spinal Tap became a parody heavy metal band.
  • Selected for preservation by the US National Film Registry

This Is Spinal Tap (stylized as This Is Spın̈al Tap) is a 1984 American mockumentary film directed and co-written by Rob Reiner. It stars Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer as members of the fictional English heavy metal band Spinal Tap (who are characterized as “one of England’s loudest bands”), and Reiner as Marty Di Bergi, a documentary filmmaker who follows them on their American tour. The film satirizes the behavior and musical pretensions of rock bands and the hagiographic tendencies of rock documentaries such as Gimme Shelter (1970), The Song Remains the Same (1976), and The Last Waltz (1978). Most of its dialogue was improvised and dozens of hours were filmed.

This Is Spinal Tap received positive reviews, but was only a modest success upon its initial release. However, it found greater success and amassed a cult following after it was released on VHS. In 2002, it was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress, and was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. In 2016, film critic and author Jeremy Arnold chose it as one of the “52 Must-See Movies”, describing it as “one of the single most influential movies of the past thirty-five years” and arguing that it “effectively launched a new genre—the mockumentary”.

Filmmaker Marty Di Bergi follows the English rock group Spinal Tap on their 1982 United States concert tour to promote their new album Smell the Glove. The band comprises childhood friends David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel on vocals and guitar, bassist Derek Smalls, keyboardist Viv Savage, and drummer Mick Shrimpton.

The band found early success as the Thamesmen with their single “Gimme Some Money”, before changing their name and achieving a minor hit with the flower power anthem “Listen to the Flower People”, and finally transitioning to heavy metal. Several of their previous drummers died in strange circumstances: spontaneous human combustion, a “bizarre gardening accident”, and choking on someone else’s vomit. Segments of Marty’s film show David and Nigel to be competent but dimwitted and immature musicians. At one point, Nigel shows Marty a custom-made amplifier that has volume knobs that go up to eleven, believing this would make their output louder.

Several of the band’s shows are canceled because of low ticket sales, and major retailers refuse to sell Smell the Glove because of its sexist cover art. Tensions arise between the band and their manager Ian Faith. David’s girlfriend Jeanine, a manipulative yoga and astrology devotee, joins the group on tour and participates in band meetings, influencing their costumes and stage presentation. The band’s distributor opts to release Smell the Glove with an entirely black cover without consulting the band. Despite their manager convincing the band that it would have a similar appeal to the White Album, the album fails to draw crowds to autograph sessions with the band.

Nigel suggests staging a lavish show, and asks Ian to order a Stonehenge megalith. However, Nigel, rushing a sketch on a napkin, mislabels its dimensions; the resulting prop is only 18 inches high, making the group a laughingstock. The group blames Ian, and when David suggests Jeanine should co-manage the group, Ian quits.

The tour continues, rescheduled into smaller and smaller venues. Nigel is marginalized by Jeanine and David. At a gig at a United States Air Force base, Nigel is upset by an equipment malfunction and quits mid-performance. At their next gig, in an amphitheater at an amusement park, the band finds their repertoire is severely limited without Nigel, and improvise an experimental “Jazz Odyssey”, which is poorly received.

At the last show of the tour, David and Derek consider exploring old side projects, such as a musical theatre production about Jack the Ripper. Before they go on stage, Nigel appears to tell them that their song “Sex Farm” has become a major hit in Japan, and that Faith wants to arrange a tour there. As the band performs, David invites Nigel onstage, reuniting them. With Ian reinstalled as manager, Spinal Tap performs a series of sold-out shows in Japan, despite the loss of drummer Mick, who explodes onstage.

Michael McKean and Christopher Guest met while in college in New York City in the late 1960s, and played music together. They worked with Harry Shearer and Rob Reiner on a TV pilot in 1978 for a sketch comedy show called The TV Show, which featured a parody rock band called Spinal Tap. During production of that sketch (while being burned with oil from on-stage effect) McKean and Guest began to improvise, inventing characters that became David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel.

Guest had previously played guitar under the name “Nigel Tufnel” on Michael McKean and David Lander’s album Lenny and the Squigtones.

The film resonated with many musicians. Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Jerry Cantrell, Dee Snider and Ozzy Osbourne all reported that, like Spinal Tap, they had become lost in confusing arena backstage hallways trying to make their way to the stage. When Dokken’s George Lynch saw the film he is said to have exclaimed, “That’s us! How’d they make a movie about us?” Glenn Danzig had a similar reaction when comparing Spinal Tap to his former band The Misfits saying, “When I first saw Spinal Tap, I was like, ‘Hey, this is my old band.'”

Lars Ulrich told a press conference crowd that the Metallica/Guns N’ Roses 1992 tour seemed “so Spinal Tap.” This tour was in support of Metallica’s own “black album”. Shortly after the tour started, Metallica’s James Hetfield suffered third degree burns on his arms after he stood too close to a pyrotechnic device. Earlier in that tour, backstage at The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, Metallica met with Spinal Tap and discussed how their “black album” was a homage to Spinal Tap’s Smell the Glove. This was captured on the Metallica DVD A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica.

U2 guitarist The Edge said in the documentary It Might Get Loud that when he first saw Spinal Tap, “I didn’t laugh, I wept,” because it summed up what a brainless swamp big-label rock music had become.

It became a common insult for a pretentious band to be told they were funnier than Spinal Tap. As George Lynch put it, the more seriously a band took themselves, the more they resembled Spinal Tap. After seeing a 1986 performance by metal band Venom, singer Henry Rollins compared them to Spinal Tap. In their respective Behind the Music episodes, Quiet Riot’s Rudy Sarzo and Ratt’s Robbin Crosby compared their own bands to Spinal Tap to some extent. For example, as a parallel to the “Shit Sandwich” incident, Quiet Riot’s fourth album Condition Critical was given the two-word review of “Condition Terminal” by J. D. Considine in Musician magazine. His review of the short-lived band GTR’s eponymous debut LP in the same magazine was “SHT”. R.E.M.’s Mike Mills described the band’s early tours as “very Spinal Tap”, citing, among other things, they had played at a United States Air Force base.

In 2008, Empire magazine ranked This Is Spinal Tap number 48 on its list of The 500 Greatest Movies of All TimeThe New York Times placed the film on their list of The Best 1000 Movies Ever Made. In January 2010, Total Film placed This Is Spinal Tap on its list of The 100 Greatest Movies of All Time. When Entertainment Weekly compiled their list of The 100 Greatest Movies of All Time, the publication included the film as “just too beloved to ignore”. In 2011, Time Out London named it the best comedy film of all time. In November 2015, the film was ranked the 11th funniest screenplay by the Writers Guild of America in its list of 101 Funniest Screenplays.

This Is Spinal Tap was first released on VHS in 1984 by Embassy Home Entertainment, and in 1994 as part of the Criterion Collection on LaserDisc under the title, This Is Spinal Tap: Special Edition. It has also been released twice on DVD.

Harry Shearer, who played Derek Smalls, went on to become one of the main voice artists on The Simpsons, providing voices for Principal Skinner, Mr. Burns, Waylon Smithers, Ned Flanders and many others. The members of Spinal Tap reprised their roles in “The Otto Show”, first playing on a concert attended by Bart and Milhouse which escalates into a riot after the band’s early leave, then having their tour bus run off the road by Otto in the school bus.

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