Thursday 25 March 2010

This is Spinal Tap (1984)

Director: Rob Reiner
Stars: Rob Reiner, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

I have a long and enjoyable history with Spinal Tap, the initially fictional English rock band at the centre of this legendary rockumentary, which is one of the most consistently funny films ever made. Rob Reiner plays a documentary filmmaker called Marty diBergi who follows Tap on their 1982 US tour, their first in six years, to promote their new album Smell the Glove, and catches their rise, fall and rise on film in the process. Coincidentally this was Reiner's debut as a director as well as diBergi's and he would go onto great success with films like Stand By Me, The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally..., though his only Oscar nomination was as a producer for A Few Good Men, which he had also directed. Initially this debut was only modestly successful but over time has proved to be a true classic that has taken on a life of its own and simply refuses to die.

Every time I watch this film I think that it would have been just as consistently funny and insightful if it was much longer. Indeed there's a bootleg version of the workprint in circulation that includes not just deleted scenes but hours more footage of other subplots, gags and songs. It apparently runs four and a half hours in length. In many ways This is Spinal Tap is a difficult film to review because the temptation is to simply sit back and enjoy it yet again and say simply, 'Go see the movie!' That four word review may well be twice as good as the two word review of Tap's album Shark Sandwich, but it still doesn't mean a heck of a lot. Really this film is nothing less than the deconstruction not just of Spinal Tap but of heavy metal as a genre, as well as the rock documentary itself.

In 1984 I was thirteen years old and one night I couldn't sleep. I turned on my radio and found myself listening to Tommy Vance's The Friday Rock Show on BBC Radio 1, thus discovering both heavy metal and rock music in general in one fell swoop. I was instantly hooked and explored the genres with abandon, applying the same logic to music that I had already applied to books and would later apply to films here at Apocalypse Later and through my IMDb Top 250 project, namely to take a starting point, then explore backwards and sideways and any other direction that came up, listening, reading and absorbing. I've been a metalhead for 25 years now and what I've learned during that time only helps to understand This is Spinal Tap at ever deeper levels.

This film came out in 1984, the same year I found Tommy Vance, and I saw it maybe a year or two later. The first time round I thought it was hilarious but only grasped some of the more generic references, but with every fresh viewing I find that I have better background knowledge and more revelations leap out of the screen, keeping it fresh. In fact it rings so true that it's a constant battle not to believe it, and that's from someone with a quarter of a century invested in the very subject it lampoons. Some real rock stars, like Eddie Van Halen and Steven Tyler, didn't find any humour in the film when they first saw it and couldn't understand why everyone around them fell about laughing, Van Halen apparently even commenting that, 'Everything in that movie had happened to me'.

The reality is aided by a few strokes of genius in making the film. One was to cast as the three core members of Spinal Tap not just actors but actors who were also comedians and musicians, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Christopher Guest. McKean and Shearer are David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel, childhood friends who both play lead guitar and share vocal duties. Tufnel looks rather like Phil Mogg of UFO, who also provide the spandex, poses and controversial sexual innuendo of Spinal Tap, though the name is a parody of Eric Clapton's. St. Hubbins looks like Rick Parfitt of Status Quo, who probably provided much of the early history of Tap, their many name changes and early experiments with style before finding their true sound in the seventies which they then stuck to relentlessly for decades. Guest is Derek Smalls, the bass player, whose leather and facial hair reminds of Manowar but whose poses were sourced from Saxon.

All three actors had worked together in the past. McKean and Shearer had performed together as far back as 1970 in a comedy band called the Credibility Gap with David Lander. McKean and Lander went on to fame on US TV in Laverne & Shirley, a successful spinoff of Happy Days, playing Lenny and Squiggy respectively. Never leaving their musical comedy roots, they released an album as Lenny and the Squigtones in 1979, featuring Guest on guitar, credited as Nigel Tufnel, the name he'd later use in Spinal Tap. Further links to this film come through another American sitcom, All in the Family, which won two Emmys for director Rob Reiner for playing the character of Meathead and in which Guest also appeared as a college buddy. Reiner had also been married to Penny Marshall, Laverne in Laverne & Shirley.

Another stroke of genius was to improvise the script, which is credited to all four of them, though they went to the Writers Guild of America in an attempt to obtain credits for the entire cast, given that they had all been involved in the improvisations. The board of the WGA ruled that it should stay as just the four of them as the key contributors, which may be fair as, unlike most of the cast, they had each been involved as far back as 1982 when they made a 20 minute version of the film with a budget of $10,000 to demonstrate what they had planned. That they nailed it to begin with can be highlighted by the fact that several scenes from this demo apparently made it into the final picture but aren't recognisable as having been filmed at a different time. I couldn't even tell you which scenes they are.

This is Spinal Tap has become so much a part of popular culture, especially within the metal genre, that while initially art imitated life, life then proceeded to imitate art. It has fed the genre it lampoons ever since its release so that the lines between what influenced Spinal Tap and what was influenced by Spinal Tap have become so blurred that it would take theses to straighten it all out. When the film was released, some people pointed out to Reiner that his film was great, but he really should have chosen a better known band to make a documentary about. Since then, Spinal Tap have deliberately played up to this misconception and blurred those boundaries between fantasy and reality further by appearing on TV shows, including The Simpsons, releasing real albums and playing real concerts. Their songs are available to download on Guitar Hero and they even provide their own audio commentary on the DVD release of the movie, in character throughout.

Another example of Tap's blurring influence on reality comes through the likely influence on Metallica's self titled 1991 album, one of the best selling albums in history. Generally referred to as The Black Album because of its cover, which is almost entirely black, Tap fans can't help but see it as a homage to Smell the Glove, which was delivered entirely black and without artwork because Tap's record label found the cover offensive. Originally a commentary on censorship and a parody of the Beatles' White Album, we may never know if the influence on Metallica was real or not as the members of Spinal Tap turned up backstage at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert and asked them flat out. Metallica owned up to the homage but they were saying so on film to Spinal Tap themselves while cracking up at the tribute being offered them.

In fact while diBergi labels his film a rockumentary it's still a more accurate depiction of the genre than most genuine documentaries, with the notable exception of The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, which in many ways is this film made with real bands. Even so, there are plenty of real musicians here. Mick Shrimpton, Tap's drummer for most of the film, is played by R J Parnell, a session drummer for bands like Atomic Rooster. A rock star called Duke Fame who Tap run into at a hotel is really Paul Shortino, the lead singer of Rough Cutt. Even a groupie called Cindy that Derek Smalls picks up around the middle of the film is Vicki Blue of the Runaways. No wonder the material went over the heads of some real rock stars. It looked realistic and it felt realistic.

Every gag in the film is all the more funny for being believable, so much so that most, if not all, of them have actually happened. Every band seems to suffer at least at some point in their career horrendous reviews, delayed album releases and incompetent tour promoters; constant changes of drummer, gigs cancelled at the last minute and the unwelcome interference of band members' girlfriends. Spinal Tap suffer through all of these utterly real situations. They get lost trying to find the stage at one venue, something that Robert Plant, Dee Snider and Ozzy Osbourne have all confessed has happened to them. They get booked at an air force base, something that REM have admitted to. They suffer from malfunctioning stage props, something that Metallica dealt with on their 1992 tour with Guns n' Roses, leaving James Hetfield with third degree burns, a tour that drummer Lars Ulrich has even described as 'so Spinal Tap'.

With so many utterly real situations, however comically they're dealt with, it's understandable how some rock stars didn't see the joke in the situations that Tap take that one step further. Their amps all go to eleven because that's one louder than ten, Tufnel has a guitar collection that includes guitars so sacred that we shouldn't even look at them, Smalls gets caught at an airport when the foil wrapped cucumber in his trousers trips the metal detector. Many band members have choked to death on vomit but Tap drummer Stumpy Joe choked to death on someone else's vomit. Jimmy Page often played his guitar with a violin bow but Tufnel uses an entire violin. Of course every rock band in the world seems to end up bigger in Japan, as Tap are during the film's happy ending. Tom Waits, who cried when he saw the film, even wrote a song called Big in Japan.

Sometimes I go a few years without watching This is Spinal Tap but it only gets funnier with each viewing, even though I know most of it by heart already. Jokes that are funny second time round are rare, but jokes that are funny tenth time round are gems, the lasting power of these jokes ranking This is Spinal Tap amongst such exalted company as Blazing Saddles, Dr Strangelove and Monty Python's Life of Brian. Even the look of the film remains spot on, not just the eighties metal fashions but the looks back to earlier incarnations of Spinal Tap on television, which are subtly blurred as befits the time, with plenty of attention given to the costumes and the hair and the style of the shows. The footage of Tap precursor, the Thamesmen, on the 1965 British TV show Pop, Look & Listen looks authentic, as does the early Tap song Listen to the Flower People on Jamboreepop in 1967 on the other side of the pond.

The Thamesmen video features Ed Begley Jr as their drummer at the time, John 'Stumpy' Pepys, only one of many recognisable faces in small roles in this film. Patrick Macnee is Sir Denis Eton-Hogg, head of Polymer Records, who provide artist relations in the form of Fran Drescher as Bobbi Flekman. Billy Crystal and Dana Carvey are mimes at the tour party in New York. Howard Hesseman is Duke Fame's manager. Anjelica Huston is the artist who builds the Stonehenge set to Tufnel's erroneous measurements. Artie Fifkin, the band's ineffective midwest promoter, is played by Paul Schaffer who is now the leader of David Letterman's in-house band. Many of the rest of the actors in the film went on to further mockumentaries made by Christopher Guest, including Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind.

I could write about Spinal Tap for hours, because there's just so much material to try to cram into a single review. I haven't even mentioned important characters like Jeanine Pettibone, St. Hubbins's girlfriend who takes over as manager of the band but then proceeds to chart their tour on astrological grounds, or the former manager, Ian Faith, who carries a cricket bat around with him just in case it's needed. Actor Tony Hendra, who plays Faith, wrote in his autobiography that he attempted suicide the night before filming began, but credits the joy experienced making this film as bringing him back from such an extreme of depression. I'd love to know which band inspired Tap's appearance at an amusement park, billed behind a puppet show. I think I have to end though, with one of the quotes that I've tried to avoid throughout in an attempt not to just paste in the entire script. 'There's such a fine line between stupid and clever,' says David St. Hubbins. This film walks that line and manages to be both throughout.


spartacus montague-phillips said...

This has to be one the most ludicrously over-rated (so-called) comedies of all time, to me its always been murderously and embarrassingly unfunny from first frame to last, almost unwatchable in fact.

Anonymous said...

I guess only people who are not into metal and don't understand the innuendos can say that this movie isn't funny. To me it is and any time I watch it I can't help laughing out loud. I love it!