This Is Spinal Tap
|This Is Spinal Tap|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Rob Reiner|
|Produced by||Karen Murphy|
|Distributed by||Embassy Pictures|
|Box office||$4.7 million (North America)|
This Is Spinal Tap is a 1984 American rock music mockumentary comedy film written, scored by, and starring Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer. The film portrays the fictional British heavy metal band Spinal Tap. Directed by Reiner, the movie satirizes the wild personal behavior and musical pretensions of hard rock and heavy metal bands, as well as the hagiographic tendencies of rock documentaries of the time.
Reiner and the three main actors are credited as the writers of the movie because they ad libbed much of the dialogue. Several dozen hours of footage were filmed before Reiner edited it to the released movie.
The three main members of Spinal Tap—David St. Hubbins, Derek Smalls and Nigel Tufnel—are played by actors McKean, Shearer, and Guest, respectively. The three actors play their musical instruments and speak with mock English accents throughout the movie. Reiner appears as Marty Di Bergi, the maker of the documentary. Other actors in the movie are Tony Hendra as group manager Ian Faith, and June Chadwick as St. Hubbins' interfering girlfriend Jeanine. Actors Paul Shaffer, Fred Willard, Fran Drescher, Bruno Kirby, Howard Hesseman, Ed Begley, Jr., Patrick Macnee, Anjelica Huston, Vicki Blue, Dana Carvey, Billy Crystal, Brinke Stevens, and Linnea Quigley all play supporting roles or make cameo appearances in the movie.
In 2002, This Is Spinal Tap was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry.
Stylistically the movie is a parody of rock documentaries, purportedly filmed and directed by the fictional Marty Di Bergi (Rob Reiner, who was also the actual director of the movie). The faux documentary covers a 1982 United States concert tour by the fictional British rock group "Spinal Tap" to promote their new album Smell the Glove, but interspersed with one-on-one interviews with the members of the group and footage of the group from previous periods in their career.
The band was started by childhood friends, David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) and Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), during the 1960s. Originally named "The Originals", then "The New Originals" to distinguish themselves from an existing group of the same name, they settled on the name "The Thamesmen", finding success with their skiffle/rhythm and blues single "Gimme Some Money". They changed their name again to "Spinal Tap" and enjoyed limited success with the flower power anthem "Listen to the Flower People". Ultimately, the band became successful with heavy metal and produced several albums. The group was joined eventually by bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer), keyboardist Viv Savage (David Kaff), and a series of drummers, each of whom mysteriously died in odd circumstances, including spontaneous human combustion, a "bizarre gardening accident" and, in at least one case, choking to death on the vomit of unknown person(s). Di Bergi's interviews with St. Hubbins and Tufnel reveal that they are competent composers and musicians, but are dimwitted and immature. Tufnel, in showing his guitar collection to Di Bergi, reveals an amplifier that has volume knobs that go to eleven; when Di Bergi asks, "Why don't you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?" Tufnel can only reply, "These go to eleven." Tufnel later plays a somber quasi-classical music composition on piano for Di Bergi, claiming it to be a "Mach piece" (a hybrid between Mozart and Bach), before revealing the composition to be entitled "Lick My Love Pump".
As the tour starts, concert appearances are repeatedly canceled due to low ticket sales. Tensions continue to increase when several major retailers refuse to sell Smell the Glove because of its sexist cover art and there is growing resentment shown towards the group's manager Ian Faith (Tony Hendra). Tufnel becomes even more perturbed when St. Hubbins' girlfriend Jeanine (June Chadwick)—a manipulative yoga and astrology devotee—joins the group on tour, begins to participate in band meetings, and attempts to influence their costumes and stage presentation. The band's distributor, Polymer Records, opts to release Smell the Glove with an entirely black cover without consulting the band. The album fails to draw crowds to autograph sessions with the band. To revive interest, Tufnel suggests staging a performance of "Stonehenge", an epic song that is to be accompanied in concert by a lavish stage show, and asks Ian to order a giant Stonehenge megalith for the show. However, Tufnel, rushing a sketch on a napkin, mislabels its dimensions, using a double prime symbol instead of single prime. The resulting prop, seen for the first time by the group during a show, is only 18 inches high (instead of the intended 18 feet), making the group a laughingstock on stage. The group accuses Faith of mismanagement, and when St. Hubbins suggests Jeanine should co-manage the group, Faith quits in disgust.
The tour continues, rescheduled into smaller and smaller venues. Tufnel becomes marginalized by Jeanine and St. Hubbins. At their next gig (at a United States Air Force base near Tacoma, Washington) Tufnel is upset by an equipment malfunction and leaves the group in the middle of a show. In their next gig, in an amphitheater at an amusement park (second-billed behind a puppet show) in Stockton, California, they find that Nigel's absence severely limits their repertoire. They are forced to improvise a fusion-esque, experimental song entitled "Jazz Odyssey", which is poorly received.
At the last show of the tour, as the group considers retirement and venturing into forgotten side projects (such as a musical theatre production on the theme of Jack the Ripper entitled Saucy Jack, and acoustic pieces with the London Philharmonic), Tufnel reappears and informs them that he is "a messenger" from Ian Faith and the Spinal Tap song "Sex Farm" is wildly popular in Japan; in fact it has reached number 5 in the charts there. He then tells David that Faith would like to arrange a new tour in that country. David is initially cool to the idea, but later on, David beckons Nigel to join them and he grabs his guitar and plays with them onstage. With Faith as manager once again, and despite losing their drummer Mick Shrimpton (R. J. Parnell) as he inexplicably explodes onstage, the film ends with Spinal Tap playing a series of sold-out arena shows for enthusiastic fans on their Japanese tour.
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Since its release, This Is Spinal Tap has received universal acclaim from critics and is widely regarded as one of the best films of 1984. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film 4 stars out of 4 and wrote "This Is Spinal Tap is one of the funniest, most intelligent, most original films of the year. The satire has a deft, wicked touch. Spinal Tap is not that much worse than, not that much different from, some successful rock bands." Ebert later placed the film on his ten best list of 1984. The film currently holds a 95% "Certified Fresh" rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes. In 2002, This Is Spinal Tap was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
Critics praised the film not only for its satire of the rollercoaster lifestyles of rock stars but also for its take on the non-fiction film genre. David Ansen from Newsweek called the film "a satire of the documentary form itself, complete with perfectly faded clips from old TV shows of the band in its mod and flower-child incarnations".
Even with cameos from Billy Crystal and Patrick Macnee, Spinal Tap still managed to trick many of its moviegoers into believing the band existed. Reiner observed that "when Spinal Tap initially came out, everybody thought it was a real band... the reason it did go over everybody's head was that it was very close to home".
Reactions from musicians
The movie cut close to home for some 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 movie 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.'"
On Pete Townshend's 1985 album White City: A Novel, the back cover describes Pete Fountain, a "famous guitarist" visiting the title location, as seen by an old childhood friend. When Pete mentions an incident where his drummer complained that "the caviar in their dressing room was the wrong viscosity - for throwing," the friend notes "This is Spinal Tap is obviously a true story."
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 Show, Metallica met with Spinal Tap and discussed how their "black album" was an 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.
In a 1992 interview, Nirvana explains declining the offer to be a part of the movie Singles. Kurt Cobain goes on to say, "There's never really been a good documentary on rock and roll bands." Dave Grohl then cuts in saying, "Except for Spinal Tap, [that] was the only rock movie worth watching," which Cobain agreed with, as well as mentioning Dont Look Back, by D.A. Pennebaker.
According to a 1997 interview in Spin magazine with Aerosmith rhythm guitarist Brad Whitford, "The first time Steven [Tyler] saw it he didn't see any humor in it." When the movie was released, Aerosmith's most recent album, Rock in a Hard Place, depicted Stonehenge prominently on the cover.
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.
Use of Spinal Tap as a descriptive term
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 early tours as "very Spinal Tap", citing, among other things, the fact that they had indeed played at a United States Air Force base. According to Harry Shearer in the Criterion edition DVD commentary, keyboard player John Sinclair had just returned from touring with Uriah Heep when principal photography was about to begin, and told them how they had been booked to play an air force base. They subsequently used the story in the film.
In the Pearl Jam documentary Pearl Jam Twenty, the band members jokingly refer to the fact that while the core lineup of the group has remained unchanged (singer Eddie Vedder, guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard, bassist Jeff Ament), the band has had five drummers. The band members describe this as 'very Spinal Tap of us'. In the documentary a mock silent film called The Drummer Story is shown explaining what happened to their previous drummers. In the silent film, one of them is almost eaten by a sea monster, only to be rescued by Eddie Vedder, playing a lifeguard.
In 2008, Empire magazine ranked This Is Spinal Tap number 48 on its list of The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time. The New York Times also 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.
American Film Institute recognition
- 2000: 100 Years... 100 Laughs #29
- 2004: 100 Years... 100 Songs (Official Ballot) for the song "Big Bottom".
- 2005: 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes (Official Ballot) for the quote "These go to eleven".
Home video release
This Is Spinal Tap has been released twice on DVD.
The first release was a 1998 Criterion edition in letterbox format which used supplemental material from the 1994 Criterion Laserdisc release. It is their only double sided DVD in their catalogue. It included an audio commentary track with Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer; a second audio commentary track with Rob Reiner, Karen Murphy, Robert Leighton and Kent Beyda; 79 minutes of deleted scenes; Spinal Tap: The Final Tour, the original twenty-minute short they shot to pitch the film; two trailers that feature Rob Reiner showing a film about cheese rolling (because "Spinal Tap" itself was still in the editing room); a TV promo, Heavy Metal Memories; and a music video for "Hell Hole". Sales of this edition were discontinued after only two years and the DVD has become a valuable collector's item. Much of this material had appeared on a 1994 CD-ROM by The Voyager Company that included the entire film in QuickTime format.
In 2000, MGM Home Entertainment released a special edition with more or less the same extras from the Criterion edition, plus a new audio commentary track with Guest, McKean and Shearer performing in character throughout, commenting on the film entirely in their fictional alter-egos, and often disapproving of how the film presents them; 70 minutes of deleted scenes (some of which were not on the Criterion DVD); a new short, Catching Up with Marty Di Bergi (where it is revealed that the members of Spinal Tap were very disappointed in Di Bergi for making a "hatchet job" of their film); the Heavy Metal Memories promo and six additional TV promos; music videos for "Gimme Some Money", "Listen to the Flower People" and "Big Bottom"; and segments of Spinal Tap appearing on The Joe Franklin Show. The special features were produced by Automat Pictures. However, this version of the film was missing the subtitles that appear throughout the film (for example, introducing band members, other personnel, and location names) and did not include the commentaries from the Criterion edition. The MGM DVD is missing the subtitles burned into the film; they have been replaced with player generated subtitles.
A 25th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray Disc release was released on July 28, 2009. It includes all bonus features from the MGM DVD plus an interview with Nigel about Stonehenge and Stonehenge from the band's Live Earth performance. It does not include the commentaries from the Criterion Collection DVD, even though MGM had stated that they would be included in the earliest press release for the Blu-ray version (most likely due to legal issues), and does not feature a "create your own avatars" element teased in publicity. However, this version does restore the subtitles that introduce band members/locales/events/etc. that were missing from MGM's DVD. The alternative, Region B, UK edition of this version additionally features a new hour-long documentary featuring famous fans, the "Bitch School" promo, the EPK for the "Back From The Dead" album, an interview with the late Reg Presley discussing the influence of the Troggs tapes on the film, and the first hour (ending with an abrupt edit) of The Return Of Spinal Tap. It does however lose the Di Bergi short and the Joe Franklin clip.
Appearances in other media
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. Spinal Tap's members voiced cartoon versions of themselves 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.
A number of critics who normally rank media on a ten-point scale have modified their ratings to pay homage to the "Up to eleven" scene. The Internet Movie Database's ranking for This Is Spinal Tap is on a scale from one to eleven, although it is still only possible to choose a rating from one to ten. On IGN, This Is Spinal Tap was the only DVD—and seemingly the only thing reviewed on IGN—to get 11 out of 10. This scene was also used in some news reports on the death of James Charles "Jim" Marshall, founder of the famous amplifier company whose equipment is featured in the scene. Richard D. Titus, UXD Controller for the BBC adopted a Spinal Tap inspired suggestion from a colleague that the BBC iPlayer should have a volume control that goes to eleven. 
Outside the world of music, J.K. Rowling cited Spinal Tap's series of drummers as an inspiration for the Harry Potter series, in which something bad happens to every teacher of Defence against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts, causing them to leave the job without completing a full school year.
- Christmas With The Devil, 1984 follow-up single
- Inside Spinal Tap (1985), a rare companion book by Peter Occhiogrosso. In 1992 this was revised and expanded exclusively for the UK market.
- Break Like the Wind (1992) album
- "The Otto Show", a 1992 episode of The Simpsons
- A two-hour, made-for-TV sequel, The Return of Spinal Tap, was broadcast and released on video in 1992 to promote Break Like the Wind. It consisted mostly of footage from an actual Spinal Tap concert at the Royal Albert Hall. In it the "Stonehenge" joke from the original movie is referenced, as the new, large prop is instead too big to get into the venue.
- This Is Spinal Tap: The Official Companion (ISBN 0-7475-4218-X) was published in 2000 to coincide. It featured a "Tapistory", full transcript of the film (including out-takes), a discography, lyrics and an A–Z of the band. This book largely recycles material from the Peter Occhiogrosso book and Criterion DVD commentaries.
- Back from the Dead, 2009 album and DVD
- Unplugged and Unwigged, 2009 live DVD of Guest, McKean, and Shearer performing songs from their various works
Notes and references
- Nixon, Rob. "The Big Idea Behind THIS IS SPINAL TAP". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved January 12, 2015.
- "This Is Spinal Tap (1984)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved August 5, 2010.
- Officially stylized This Is Spın̈al Tap, with a non-functional heavy metal umlaut over the letter n—n-diaeresis—and a dotless letter i.
- "'Spinal Tap,' 'Alien' Make National Film Registry - News". Lifewhile. December 18, 2002. Retrieved January 7, 2012.
- There is an unrelated real group The Originals, a Motown group active in the late 1960s to the present day.
- "This Is Spinal Tap Movie Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved June 11, 2010.
- "The Greatest Films of 1984". AMC Filmsite.org. Retrieved June 11, 2010.
- "The 10 Best Movies of 1984". Film.com. Retrieved June 11, 2010.
- "The Best Movies of 1984 by Rank". Films101.com. Retrieved June 11, 2010.
- "Most Popular Feature Films Released in 1984". IMDb.com. Retrieved June 11, 2010.
- "This Is Spinal Tap Movie Reviews". Chicago Sun Times. Retrieved June 11, 2010.
- "Ebert's 10 Best Lists: 1967 to Present". Chicago Sun Times. Retrieved June 11, 2010.
- "This Is Spinal Tap Movie Reviews, Pictures". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved June 11, 2010.
- "This Is Spinal Tap: Award Wins and Nominations". IMDb.com. Retrieved June 11, 2010.
- Muir, John (2004). Best in Show: The Films of Christopher Guest and Company. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books. p. 31.
- Yabroff, Jennie (2009). The Real Spinal Tap. Newsweek.
- See the notes for Symptom of the Universe: The Original Black Sabbath 1970-1978, Rhino Records, 2002.
- "Q&A: Robert Plant". Rolling Stone. Retrieved January 7, 2012.
- Paul Du Noyer, "Who the hell does Jimmy Page think he is?", Q magazine, August 1988, p. 7.
- Konow, David (2002). Bang Your Head. Three Rivers Press. pp. 216–217. ISBN 0-609-80732-3.
- Blush, Steven (2001). American Hardcore. Feral House. p. 207. ISBN 0-922915-71-7.
- "'It Might Get Loud' Movie Review: Documentary Puts Three Guitar Gods Center Stage". New Jersey On-Line. Retrieved June 11, 2010.
- Rollins, Henry, Get In The Van: On The Road With Black Flag, 2.13.61 Publications, 1994
- "'Real Life Spinal Tap' Anvil Sign Record Deal". Spinner. November 25, 2010. Retrieved January 7, 2012.
- "Empire's The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time". Empire. Retrieved June 11, 2010.
- "The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made". The New York Times. April 29, 2003. Retrieved May 25, 2010.
- "Total Film features: 100 Greatest Movies of All Time". Total Film. Retrieved August 23, 2010.
- "Entertainment Weekly's 100 Greatest Movies of All Time". Entertainment Weekly. Published by AMC Filmsite.org. Retrieved August 23, 2010.
- "100 Best Comedy Movies". Time Out London. Retrieved September 17, 2011.
- "AFI's 100 Years... 100 Laughs" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved August 23, 2010.
- "AFI's 100 Years... 100 Songs" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved August 23, 2010.
- "AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved August 23, 2010.
- This Is Spinal Tap at the Internet Movie Database
- Trivia: ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ IMDB Rating Goes to Eleven
- IMDb trivia for This Is Spinal Tap acknowledges special rating
- "IGN: This is Spinal Tap DVD". Uk.dvd.ign.com. Retrieved January 7, 2012.
- Richard D. Titus Tumblir
- Rowling, J.K. "J.K. Rowling answers questions at the White House Easter Egg Roll, 5 April 2010". Accio Quote. Retrieved 10 October 2015.
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- This Is Spinal Tap at the Internet Movie Database
- This Is Spinal Tap at the TCM Movie Database
- This Is Spinal Tap at AllMovie
- This Is Spinal Tap at Rotten Tomatoes
- Cirterion Collection Essay by Peter Occhiogrosso