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Spinal Tap

The best humor is invariably laced with cruelty, garnished with cynicism and lightly sprinkled with an earnest, desperate desire to be loved.

Which is pretty much the recipe for This is Spinal Tap, the now classic rock-mockumentary which in the process of lampooning one genre pretty much created a whole new one.

This is Spinal Tap was the first feature film ever directed by Rob Reiner, but the band itself was first invented by its stars, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer, portraying David St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel and Derek Smalls respectively.

The band debuted as a throwaway sketch on a forgettable TV skit comedy show in the late 1970s. Reiner took it on as a film project, mostly because he was painfully desperate to get people to stop calling him "Meathead." (It didn't work.)

Spinal Tap didn't start out with the most original concept. In 1978, Monty Python's Eric Idle had debuted a modestly forgettable mock rockumentary called The Rutles, which had also begun as a TV comedy sketch (on Saturday Night Live). The film specifically lampooned The Beatles and their music.

What This is Spinal Tap brought to the mix, however, was an innovative approach to actually making the movie. Spinal Tap was largely improvised by the actors. Reiner put them in front of the cameras, got them talking (through faux interviews playing the "director" of the film, Marty DeBergi), and just recorded the results. (Rumor has it there is a 9-hour bootleg version of the movie circulating out there somewhere.)

So where The Rutles was structured along the more traditional lines of set-up/punchline comedy, Spinal Tap just kind of flowed. And that made all the difference. Instead of the traditional ba-da-bing pacing of a scripted comedy, Spinal Tap had the feel of a late-night dorm room descent into absurdity, the sort of thing that's really funny but you had to be there.

Fortunately, you are there, thanks to the mock verite style of the film. The movie tracks the "comeback tour" of the 1980s hair metal band as things go from bad to worse, occasionally diverting into inspired musical numbers with titles like "Big Bottom" and "Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight," and lyrics like "You're too young / and I'm too well hung" and "My baby fits me like a flesh tuxedo / I love to sink her with my pink torpedo."

While the musical numbers click (the actors genuinely wrote and performed all the music, unlike the Monkees), it's the interview segments that really make the movie work. Spinal Tap fans quote the movie with the same obscurantist, geek-chic social ineptness frequently demonstrated by the followers of Monty Python and Star Trek.

The more memorable exchanges roll through the surreal with an absolute absence of self-consciousness:

DIBERGI: David St. Hubbins... I must admit I've never heard anybody with that name.

HUBBINS: It's an unusual name, well, he was an unusual saint, he's not a very well known saint.

DIBERGI: Oh, there actually is, uh... there was a Saint Hubbins?

HUBBINS: That's right, yes.

DIBERGI: What was he the saint of?

HUBBINS: He was the patron saint of quality footwear.

Others play with the band members' bizarre blend of oblivious innocence and, um, let's call it "worldliness," as in this scene featuring Nigel (Guest) composing at the piano:
DIBERGI: It's very pretty.

TUFNEL: 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...

DIBERGI: What do you call this?

TUFNEL: Well, this piece is called "Lick My Love Pump."

And perhaps the best of all, there's the scene where Nigel Tufnel demonstrates the band's amplifiers, all of which are fitted with dials that go up to eleven instead of the usual ten:
DIBERGI: Does that mean it's louder? Is it any louder?

TUFNEL: Well, it's one louder, isn't it? It's not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You're on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you're on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?

DIBERGI: I don't know.

TUFNEL: Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?

DIBERGI: Put it up to eleven.

TUFNEL: Eleven. Exactly. One louder.

DIBERGI: Why don't you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?

TUFNEL: (Extremely long pause) These go to eleven.

Some of the better zingers have passed into the popular vocabulary, most memorably, "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever" (always an important point to remember).

Overall, the mockumentary style and ad-libbed performances were so effective that many people didn't realize the film was a parody. Rob Reiner reported that many people approached him to commend the film, but suggested he should have picked a better-known band to profile.

In addition to its whopping box office gross of, uh, $5 million, Spinal Tap was a powerful influence on the multi-billion, uh, multi-million... well, let's just say lucrative mockumentary film genre, inspiring such later film blockbust... er... movies like Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. All of which, quite coincidentally, featured Tap star Christopher Guest either in front of, or behind, the camera. Hey, stick with what works.

(There was also Bob Roberts, an extremely biting and modestly successful political mockumentary which featured the extraordinary distinction of absolutely zero Guest involvement.)

A Mighty Wind reunited the three main Spinal Tap stars, who stretched their acting abilities to portray a washed-up folk band instead of a washed-up metal band. Daring! The three also reunited for a 1992 TV movie reunion which came and went with little fanfare.

The legend lives on, with the Tap members occasionally reuniting for TV guest shots on The Simpsons and other less worthy shows. In 2003, the movie was named the greatest cult film of all time. The critical nod was given by Entertainment Weekly, a mass purveyor of all things mainstream, so it's probably more fair to say that Spinal Tap is the square, whitebread vision of what a cult movie should be. Still, it beats being called a "shit sandwich," as one of the band's fictional reviewers deemed an album.

Perhaps the most fitting tribute to Spinal Tap can be found obscurely tucked away as an Easter Egg in the Internet Movie Database's "user rating" bar (in the paid subscription section of the site), which measures a movie's worth based on a score of 1 to 10.

Although IMDB users only gave the movie a 7.9 rating, the graph goes to eleven. Maybe someday, baby...

Cameos in Spinal Tap

Playing "catch the celebrity" is one of the fun parts of watching This is Spinal Tap. Here are just a few to look out for (these are the easy ones):
  • Tony Hendra
  • Ed Begley Jr.
  • Fran Drescher
  • Patrick MacNee
  • Dana Carvey
  • Billy Crystal
  • Howard Hesseman
  • June Chadwick
  • Paul Shaffer
  • Anjelica Huston
  • Fred Willard

Timeline

2 Mar 1984 This Is Spinal Tap released in theaters.
5 May 1984 SNL musical guest: Spinal Tap, who perform the songs "Big Bottom" and "Christmas with the Devil."
9 Apr 1992 Band cameo in Simpsons episode 8F21 "The Otto Show."
7 Dec 1994 Criterion Collection laserdisc released. (Out of print.) Full of bonus materials, including three commentary tracks and the original 40-minute film, this is simply a must-have for true fans.
8 Jul 1998 Criterion Collection DVD released. (Out of print.) Exactly the same content as the laserdisc version, except in a format which hasn't yet become obsolete. Only problem: it's two-sided (not dual layer). About $50 on eBay.
12 Sep 2000 Special Edition DVD released. Nowhere near as good as the Criterion release, although it contains a mildly humorous commentary track recorded by the three band members (in character). Mostly they just complain about being inaccurately portrayed. Don't waste your money -- buy the Criterion disc.


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