MGM // 1984 // 82 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // August 10th, 2009
"In the topsy-turvy world of heavy rock, having a good solid piece of wood in your hand is often useful." -- Spinal Tap manager Ian Faith
I, Dan Mancini, hereby pledge that this review will contain no jokes about anything "going to eleven." Nor will the phrase "none more black" be used anywhere herein. If you're looking for that sort of thing, go dig up any review at any other site.
It is 1983. Once legendary rock band Spinal Tap -- renowned for their raw power and punctuality -- set off on their first tour of the United States in six years in support of Smell the Glove, the first record for their new label, Polymer Records. Following the band is long-time fan and commercial filmmaker Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner, Sleepless in Seattle), who intends to capture "the sights, the sounds, the smells of a hard-working rock band on the road." Instead, he documents the slow dissolution of the band as Tap manager Ian Faith (Tony Hendra, Jumpin' Jack Flash>) wars with Polymer executives Bobbi Flekman (Fran Drescher, The Beautician and the Beast) and Sir Dennis Eton-Hogg (Patrick Macnee, The Avengers) over Smell the Glove's provocative cover; founding Spinal Tap members guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest, Waiting for Guffman) and singer David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean, Best in Show) fight over David bringing his overbearing girlfriend Jeanine (June Chadwick, V) on tour while bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer, A Mighty Wind) tries to maintain the peace between them; and dismal record sales lead to canceled gigs and shows at increasingly pathetic venues from an Air Force base holding an "At Ease Weekend" event, to an amusement park amphitheater where Spinal Tap plays second bill to a puppet show. The sad (yet hilarious) tale of the band's unraveling is peppered with interviews in which the band members philosophize about rock and roll and reminisce about Tap's long list of deceased drummers, live performances of Tap tunes like "Hell Hole," "Stonehenge," and "Big Bottom," and vintage footage of Tufnel and St. Hubbins' mid-'60s skiffle group The Thamesmen (formerly the New Originals, formerly the Originals) performing their hit "Gimme Some Money," as well as then newly formed Spinal Tap performing "(Listen to the) Flower People" on Jamboree Bop in the early '70s.
The visual and narrative conventions of rock documentaries and concert films were established throughout the 1970s in movies like Woodstock, The Kids Are Alright, and The Song Remains the Same. But two of the most important and influential rockumentaries of the decade were director Michael Lindsay-Hogg's Let It Be, which accidentally captured the end of The Beatles, and Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz, which documented the final performance of The Band. Both movies delivered drama by giving us a glimpse of great bands on their last legs, blending dazzling musical performances with ego clashes, dopey rock star pontification on matters personal, political, and spiritual, and the goofball fanaticism of concert-goers. Both movies revealed rock-and-roll as a peculiar and peculiarly adolescent (even when the musicians are middle-aged) big-business global subculture. When Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer conceived This Is Spinal Tap in the early 1980s, the rockumentary conventions established in Let It Be and The Last Waltz were familiar to audiences but hadn't yet ascended into the realm of pop culture cliché through endless repetition in countless feature documentaries and on television in the likes of VH1's Behind the Music. This Is Spinal Tap basically destroyed the rockumentary for all time, imitating and lampooning its conventions with such detailed precision that all subsequent rock docs can't help but have something of the flavor of self-parody. The only thing that comes off as more laughably ridiculous than the events of This Is Spinal Tap is the behavior of actual rock stars. (Consider the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- its pop psychological emphasis on lead singer James Hetfield's recovery from alcoholism, it frequently plays like self-conscious homage to Tap.)
This Is Spinal Tap is a dense tapestry of rock clichés, made fresh by the delicacy with which Reiner and company weave them into a compelling story peopled with characters we like despite their many, many flaws (of which, obliviousness to their own pretentious foolishness is the greatest). When Jeanine Pettibone intrudes upon the bromance between David and Nigel, it is obviously meant to evoke the Yoko Ono-shaped rift that developed between Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney. When, during an extended guitar solo, Nigel uses a violin to play his guitar, any respectable rock fan knows it's a gag about Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Paige's penchant for using a violin bow to deliver lengthy, self-indulgent solos. That various Tap drummers of the past have perished in bizarre gardening accidents, or by choking on their own (or someone else's) vomit, or by spontaneously combusting, calls to mind the deaths of any number of rock stars -- especially drummers Keith Moon and John Bonham. If these elements were treated like direct references to events in other rockumentaries, This Is Spinal Tap wouldn't be much better than the painfully unfunny referential non-comedies of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer (Epic Movie). But Reiner, Guest, McKean, and Shearer transpose these examples of boilerplate rock drama onto characters that have their own personalities. This Is Spinal Tap may poke fun at rock-and-roll, but it treats its particular goofball rock stars with an unwavering and deeply infectious fondness. Even though the lads of Spinal Tap are a pack of dolts, we can't help but like them and root for them to succeed.
As a comedy, This Is Spinal Tap is unimaginably perfect. Because the actors improvised their roles around an established framework of plot (the slow but inevitable collapse of the band), the comedy is far denser than anything a screenwriter could achieve on paper. Almost every second of the movie is genuinely funny (and imminently quotable), whether the gags are large or small, broad or subtle, absurd or bitingly witty. Yet the comedy is never wrong-footed by the problems that often plague improvisation. None of the players (lead or supporting) ever tries too hard for a laugh or attempts to upstage his fellow actors. And not a single character in the movie appears to be in on the joke -- every single actor plays it straight. The movie is perfectly balanced and entirely consistent across its entire 82 minutes. Cameos by Bruno Kirby as a disgruntled, Sinatra-loving limo driver, Dana Carvey and Billy Crystal as a pair of mime waiters, Anjelica Huston as a confused set designer, and Fred Willard as an über-square Air Force colonel, add to the film's texture without distracting from the main story. The comedic execution is so brilliant that even non-actor Paul Shaffer (Late Show with David Letterman) is naturally, casually hilarious as concert promoter Artie Fufkin, who takes Tap's plummeting popularity very personally.
Despite the high quality of the comedy, This Is Spinal Tap wouldn't be a classic if it didn't deliver on the musical front. McKean, Guest, and Shearer make a damn fine band, and it's to their credit that the movie is remembered as much for its tunes as its comedy. The trio penned an impressive collection of music that is lyrically precocious and encompasses a broad cross-section of rock music without copying specific bands or songs. "Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You (Tonight)" is a pitch-perfect hard rock anthem that would make Kiss or Queen proud. "Stonehenge" is just the sort of ponderous, pretentious, and epic suite of music churned out by the likes of Rush or even The Who, though it sounds nothing like either band. I defy any musician not to appreciate the crude cheekiness (pun intended) of "Big Bottom," a musical double entendre in which lyrics about a girl's impressive mud flaps are set against three bass lines. The movie's music is so well written, performed, and produced that, in the minds of audiences, Spinal Tap has become an actual band in a way that The Monkees or The Partridge Family never have. That's an impressive feat for a trio of comedians.
Considering it was shot on 16mm stock, This Is Spinal Tap looks fantastic on Blu-ray. Detail isn't spectacular, but colors are fully saturated and entirely accurate. The 1080p resolution reproduces the source's grain structure nearly perfectly, producing an image that looks like celluloid. Since the grittier, grainier texture of the film and the abundant use of handheld shots are essential elements of the movie's faux documentary style, what would normally be flaws in other transfers are perfectly acceptable here. And despite the absence of sharp detail, the movie looks amazing for having been shot on 16mm (it's far more detailed and less grainy than Kevin Smith's Clerks, for example -- a sure sign that Reiner and his crew put a lot of technical know-how into creating the illusion that their film was low-tech).
With an audio upgrade to a DTS-HD lossless track, This Is Spinal Tap has never sounded better on home video than it does on Blu-ray. The video transfer was about what I'd expected, but the audio mix surprised me with its depth, clarity, and fine-tuned dynamic range. While dialogue and effects are crystal clear, it's the music that really comes to life in this mix. High end is crisp, midrange is punchy, and the songs have, uh, big bottom. The live performances throughout the film have always had a relatively thin '80s production vibe about them (they were recorded in the mid-'80s, after all). This mix doesn't undermine that original aesthetic. It simply enhances it with improved clarity and a more balanced dynamic range. For once, listeners can truly appreciate the fine playing of Derek Smalls.
While This Is Spinal Tap sports impressive video and audio, things aren't so hunky-dory on the extras front. When MGM first announced this release, it was to include all of the supplements from MGM's Special Edition DVD as well as the two commentary tracks from the Criterion Collection's earlier DVD (and Laserdisc before that). Alas, it was not meant to be. The Criterion commentaries are absent, as is a "Create Your Own Band" game that was listed in the initial press release. Instead, we get a port of the Special Edition DVD with a few thin additions.
Chief among the reheated extras is a fantastic audio commentary by Spinal Tap. The boys vent their spleens about Marty DiBergi (they consider the movie a hatchet job) and one-time manager Ian Faith ("It's amazing to see his hands in his own pockets for a change"); struggle to keep track of who in the movie is currently alive, dead, or missing; and interject behind-the-scenes anecdotes. The sharp, improvised track is like having a second cut of the movie. It's absolutely hilarious.
In "Catching Up with Marty DiBergi" (5:01) we learn about the director's first feature Kramer vs. Kramer vs. Godzilla, his rocky relationship with Tap, and his dismal career since the rockumentary (including a pathetic plea for directorial work). "Rare Outtakes" (67:51) is a collection of 14 deleted scenes, including entire subplots that were removed from the final cut of the film. A section titled "Vintage 'Tap' Materials" contains two video featurettes: "Flower Power Press Conference" (1:49) is a faux-retro interview (a la The Beatles' first American press conference) in which the boys discuss their hit single, flower power, the Vietnam War, drugs, and other topics; and "Spinal Tap Appearance on The Joe Franklin Show" (2:01) is a segment of the talk show in which the band discusses their early career. There are music videos for "Gimme Some Money," "(Listen to the) Flower People," "Hell Hole," and "Big Bottom," two parody television commercials, three TV spots for the film, and three commercials starring Tap for a Hot Pocket-like product called Rock and Rolls. All of the video features are presented in standard definition.
Accompanying the Blu-ray is a DVD with a couple of lightweight new supplements. First up is Spinal Tap's performance of "Stonehenge" at 2007's Live Earth concert. Though the band is introduced by Marty DiBergi, it's not much of a reunion. Also housed on the disc is a series of interviews with Nigel used by the National Geographic Channel as bumpers for their documentary Stonehenge Decoded. In them, Nigel offers his bizarre theories about the ancient monument (one man, named Duncan, built it single-handedly).
While it's great to experience This Is Spinal Tap in high definition, I can't help but feel that MGM has missed the mark a bit. This Blu-ray might have been the definitive home video release of the film had it packed two BD-50s with the feature, all three previously recorded commentaries (or at least a newly recorded track with McKean, Guest, Shearer, and Reiner speaking out of character, if Criterion wouldn't license their original tracks), the old Special Edition DVD extras, the Live Earth performance, National Geographic spots, and perhaps some of the other Tap-related stuff floating around out there, like the 1992 television special A Spinal Tap Reunion: The 25th Anniversary London Sell-Out, the 1998 video short Spinal Tap: The Final Tour, and the 2004 20th anniversary retrospective documentary Spinal Tap Goes to 20. As it stands, the extras on this disc are a minor disappointment.
Even if it's not all that it could have been, This Is Spinal Tap is a great Blu-ray, worthy of inclusion in any fan's collection. The movie looks and sounds great, and is still as funny a quarter of a century down the line as it was when it first hit theaters.
It's such a fine line between stupid and clever. Not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2009 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 82 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Music Videos
* TV Spots
* Live Performance