Our review of This Is Spinal Tap (Blu-Ray), published August 10th, 2009, is also available.
Does for rock and roll what "The Sound of Music" did for hills
Everyone, at some point in his or her life, has dreamed of being a rock star. And why not? Living a life completely insular and self contained, driven by a fanatical desire to please and be pleased and judged exclusively by the amount of outrageous or artistic behavior one can display, it's the kind of existence that hopes are forged from (and long trips to fantasy camp are planned over). In bold bedroom ruminations the mighty music maker takes the stage, red-hot guitar slung along their shoulder as millions of fans wash waves of adoration over their living God status. Then they flip an imaginary switch, crank the mountainous amp as high as it will go, and spin that Pete Townshend windmill, pick positioned precariously, for one huge power chord blast of soul saving freedom. There will only be a lucky few who ever get a chance to play music on stage. There's an even smaller number who will make a living at it. But somewhere out in the idolatry ionosphere are those confirmed legends and stalwarts, bands from the hallowed halls of rock and roll whose names send one's shiver source into overdrive: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, R.E.M., U2, Nirvana, Pearl Jam. Add to this very non-inclusive list of heavyweights the name…Spinal Tap? While perhaps not giants musically, when it comes to classic cinema, they are part of one of the most uproarious send-ups of the entire sex, drugs and hillbilly hummables philosophy. This Is Spinal Tap is that unique anomaly: a comedy about rock and roll that is actually funny and faithful to its source. And thanks to MGM, it is available in an enlightening, full-blown DVD extravaganza.
Facts of the Case
For those who don't know them, Spinal Tap are England's loudest band, and for more than two decades they have brought their predominantly white male teenage audience to its collective feet with raunch rock classics like "Hell Hole," "Big Bottom," and "Stonehenge." Like most "metal" bands, critics have found them shrill, crude, and offensive. But never deterred, they continue to march on year after year in the pursuit of that most illusive of rock and roll goals: superstardom. That and a big crib. Marty DiBergi, a director known for his work in television commercials, wanted to capture Tap's 1982 tour of America on film for a documentary (or as it should be called, a rockumentary) about the band. With unbelievable access, he got to know the band and their individual players.
For the record, there's David St. Hubbins, rhythm guitarist and ersatz leader of the band. His longtime best friend and band mate is Nigel Tufnel, a moody, dense lead guitarist/multi-instrumentalist. On bass is the macho pipe smoking Derek Smalls and Viv Savage, a keyboardist with a fast hand and a rather slow grasp of the world around him rounds out the "regular" members. And then there's…well…a drummer. Not always the same drummer, mind you, since Tap have had a very bad track record of…"losing" drummers in freak accidents and bizarre paranormal occurrences. Currently, Mick Shrimpton pounds the skins for the band, and he is confident that he will break the curse. Or at least he hopes he will.
In the actual footage shot and compiled for the film, Marty follows the band as they arrive in the States and meet their record label. At first, the executives are supportive. But dissention arrives with arguments over the "sexy/sexist" proposed cover photo for their new album (entitled "Smell the Glove"). Then their popularity and professionalism are tested as gigs are cancelled. Soon, it seems that nothing but bad luck befalls the band. They get lost while trying to get on stage in Cleveland. They are the only ones in attendance at a Chicago in-store appearance. And then Jeanine, David's live-in girlfriend, arrives from England to follow the band. Tensions mount between her and two of the main players in the group: Nigel, who finds her pushy and empty, and manager Ian Faith, who sees her as an opinionated and discordant distraction for his boys. Everything finally falls apart when the band is upstaged by an 18-INCH (NOT 18-FOOT) replica of Stonehenge during a concert. Ian quits after a post-show argument and Nigel's exit comes after a terrible booking for the group as the dance band for an Air Force base mixer. It seems like this may be the end to one of the longest stories of semi-success in rock and roll history. Luckily, DiBergi's camera is there to catch every crazy, chaotic moment.
Ask any actor, director, writer, or stunt man what is the more difficult between comedy and drama, and you are bound to get a response as hackneyed as those smiling/frowning yin-yang thespian masks. Sure, comedy is tough: it requires actual laughter to prove its value and worth. A drama can be moving, or enlightening or merely true to its source. But if an audience is not giggling with girlish delight, or braying like crack addicted donkeys at the antics on stage or screen, the decision is clear and the criticism final. The comedy did not work. The performance was not funny. But for some people, the basis of just being witty is not enough. They want to complicate matters by requiring additional layers of humor, like quirkiness or social commentary. They want their parody super-intelligent with a knowing nod to the insider or their slapstick overdone to the point of painful prat falderal. Into this fray of failed funny business falls the improvisational comedian, someone so devilish and carefree that they are willing to work without a script, a net, or even a valid premise. Just wind them up and watch the (potential) comedic hijinks. Mixing the spoof with the ad lib is a laugh-laced landmine field. Without the skills to properly "make it up as one goes along," the recipe for an all-out tedious disaster is firmly in place.
That is why a film like This Is Spinal Tap is such a rare and
startling gem. Based on an extended improvisation by skilled comedic actors
Michael McKean (Laverne and Shirley, Earth Girls are Easy), Harry
Shearer (The Simpson's), and Christopher Guest (Saturday Night
Live, Waiting for Guffman),
it's one of those elusive occasions where creativity and chaos mesh perfectly to
produce a meticulous motion picture milestone. One of a few films to actually
introduce new terms to the jargon of the cinema, in this case,
"rockumentary" and its spoof cousin, the "mockumentary," it
showed that an entire film could be spontaneously created and carved out of
situations and suggestion. It paved the way for such future ad hoc masterworks
as the aforementioned Guffman, Best in Show, and the films of Mike
Leigh. This is not to say that This Is Spinal Tap is merely a
well-intentioned experiment. Hardly. It is uncompromisingly funny, incredibly
musical and a biting bit of social commentary. While working as a comedy (and a
very funny one at that), it also functions as a rare glimpse and direct
statement regarding the world of rock and roll, a land of excess, excuses, and
euphoria. Anyone who lived through the '80s can see the telltale spandex and
styling gel of hair metal in the tousled locks and clueless look of this pseudo
super group. Anyone looking for the outrageous excesses, the stupefying demands,
and juvenile temper tantrums of ballroom blitzers finds it here in an
all-access, caught "in the act" document for all the world to see. And
then there are those songs. It's truly an extraordinary accomplishment to write
material that is
It's been almost 20 years since the film first hit theaters. Originally released with little fanfare or warning, it sold itself on a decidedly clever level of reality/deception. Many people who saw the film (and did not know a bearded Rob Reiner from a meathead) bought this as a legitimate documentary about a heretofore unknown Brit band. Once the ruse was exposed, the accolades poured in and a legend was born. And even today, some have a hard time divorcing the actors from their rock and roller counterparts. This Is Spinal Tap is so real, so acute and so detailed in its presentation that it still raises questions and leaves doubt. After all, how could anyone know this much inside information and not have lived through it? Spinal Tap is a comedy that succeeds on many levels, like the razor sharpness of the satire. Not a single major rock act, from Aerosmith to members of Led Zeppelin, fail to mention Spinal Tap when discussing the greatest (and most telling) rock and roll films of all time. This is one of the few movies that accurately captures what life in a band is like; the dynamic tensions, the childish infighting, and the exhausting joy of performance. All musicians seem to have had their Spinal Tap moments, be they tirades over the food in the dressing room or the career numbing embarrassment of props that fail. This musical Murphy's Law is universal. It resonates beyond the back stage pass and into the real world.
Another continuously startling aspect of the film is the musicianship of the actors involved. We are not talking Monkees faux show tunes here, or some high concept brainstorm from a wannabe producer with a storeroom full of radio ready soundtrack items to unleash upon an unsuspecting world. Everyone here is accomplished beyond that of normal guitar-slinging hobbyists. It is remarkable how well Christopher Guest and Michael McKean intertwine as an axe-bashing power rock duo, something that takes your average garage or bar band years of rehearsal and sweat to accomplish. This is a tight, powerful rock combo—and it's vital to remember that it is made up of actors. While it would be very interesting to learn something about the songwriting and recording process, it's dumbfounding to think of the level of creativity involved. Heavy metal is already a tad goofy. It takes genius to move it away from its silly sonic symphonies and into the realm of true humor. Every song in This Is Spinal Tap is a groan inducing, guffaw producing greatest hit. Not since Tom Lehrer has music packed this much wit, satire, and singability. But the music is just a small part of Spinal Tap's humor. This is one of the few truly timeless comedies. It does not rely on massive gross out or bodily fluid gags to sell its laughs. Nor is it trapped forever in the day and era of its creation. Just like the music of The Beatles or Elton John, This Is Spinal Tap transcends its making and invention. The movie is an absolute testament to talent in all areas: acting, writing, directing, editing and structuring. Any of these elements fail and the film falls apart. All gel to form a remarkable motion picture.
This Is Spinal Tap is really the story of all those bands whose albums you see on the back shelves of local music stores that leave you scratching your head wondering "who?" It's a photograph of all those warm up acts you've grumbled through as you wait for the headliner to take the concert stage. It's a celebration of persistence and of never compromising. It's about faith, of believing so wholly in the saving grace of rock and roll that you know all wounds will heal, from the failed chart performances of your last single to the rifts that break bands apart. It seems, recently, that rock and roll is going through a twenty year recycling phase. As long as the members split apart and do not kill themselves or each other in the process, about two decades later they will be reborn, playing state fairs and local amusement parks. For the band, there's hope for another heaping helping of that horrible, wonderful ambrosia known as fame. For the fan, there is the thrill of reliving that first moment when this music and its makers were fresh and vital. It's all part of the dream: the band's urge for success and the fan's desire for the music to last forever. This is the real life version of Spinal Tap, a tale of trying in vain desperation to eek out a small sample of that undeniably attractive salve known as rock and roll stardom. Oddly enough, as Spinal Tap the movie has grown in stature, so has the fake band. Once ridiculed, they now find themselves revered and respected. Surprisingly, this does not destroy the fiasco as fun nature of the film. Indeed, their newfound glory only enhances the goofy charm of this, their pre-prominence struggle.
When the title first hit DVD back in 1998, Criterion presented it in what many consider to be a definitive presentation. What fans and collectors will want to know now is: should they run over to eBay and plunk down hundreds of dollars for an out of print copy of the disc, or should they simply wander over to their local Wal-Mart and pick up MGM's widely available new special edition? Honestly, it's a very tough call. The MGM image is impressive. For a film made twenty years ago, shot on a shoestring under less than professional conditions and circumstance, as well as being completely created from scratch, the print is incredible. There is a bare minimum of dirt and the occasional blemish, but overall it looks fantastic. And yet there are those critics on the web, lucky enough to own both DVDs that argue for the Criterion transfer (even if it is not anamorphic). Others complain that Criterion offers the film in a more "original aspect ratio" friendly 1.70:1, while MGM decides to crop a tiny bit to achieve 1.85:1. In many ways both arguments are moot, since so few people will be able to own both versions. Unless Criterion gets authorization to re-release their version, it really seems pointless to discuss it. Suffice it to say that if you get your hands on the MGM disc, you will not be disappointed. The movie looks great.
There is one slight issue with this DVD that has, however, apparently been addressed and modified by MGM. When the disc first came out, the subtitles indicating person and place, crucial information within the film, were rendered anew and digitally generated over the film. Previous VHS (and the Criterion) versions of the title have the subtitles optically burnt into the negative itself. While this may be nothing more than a stickler's nitpicking point, true aficionados of the film may find the new style of subtitles perturbing. Research across the Internet seems to indicate that MGM has corrected this aesthetic glitch and that all future releases have the titles as they originally appeared on screens in the theaters.
Sonically, MGM has done a wonderful job with the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. For a movie made prior to the conceptualization of this technology, there are many instances of across channel fading, front and rear direction and immersion. Voices are almost exclusively in the front and sound clean and crisp. But everyone knows that you watch Tap for its raucous music, and it is here where the aural presentation truly rocks. Songs like the bass heavy "Big Bottom" or the thunderous "Sex Farm" really shine in 5.1. And there is a real crowd and audience feel to all the live numbers. As for extras, we are presented with an over abundance. There are music videos spanning the group's entire career, including the original "Listen to the Flower People" performance footage. But oddly, there is nothing dated after this movie. No TV specials or discography material. No videos for "Break Like the Wind" or "The Majesty of Rock." Still, we do get to see the band circa 1967 at a flower power press conference and a totally surreal appearance on The Joe Franklin Show (for those out of the loop, the once infamous New York talk show host Joe Franklin was—and is—a kind of anti-Johnny Carson, a clueless, lost in the '30s and '40s interviewer who would compare Joey Ramone to Al Joleson or confuse Eddie Murphy to Eddie Cantor and fail to see the irony). And along with some commercials for a hot pocket style snack and a poster/press gallery, we are given the all access pass treatment of the band.
But there are two additional special features that warrant the most detailed attention. The Criterion Collection version of the title offered dueling commentary tracks—one featuring the filmmakers and the other featuring the stars. MGM has reduced these choices by one, and then added the twist of having the creative forces behind the film record their comments completely in character (one guess is that this was the actors' idea). So we are not treated to Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, or Harry Shearer talking about the technical aspects or challenges of making the film. No insight into songwriting, story development or the actual shoot. Instead, the in-character commentary acts like a sour, albeit very witty rebuttal, to the image of Tap portrayed. It's a chance for the characters to watch their antics on film and respond/clarify. Some of this is devilishly clever (like their drummers, most of the supporting people surrounding Tap, including management, corporate, and even restaurant staff have mysteriously ended up dead or dying), but other times, their comments, frankly, tend to destroy the illusion on screen. When we see Nigel praising his amplifier for going "to eleven," we don't need to then hear the "band" on the commentary track saying "we all know the difference now. We were made to look foolish." While approaching the track like this does allow for the improvisational ruse to continue, it grows frustrating as they consistently attack every person, place and event. By the end, when Tap have completely dismantled every issue in the film, you feel slightly cheated. The idea is radical and very inventive (who else would deflate their own classic film?), but it also creates questions in one's mind as to just how seriously the actors take this whole "group" thing. After all, Spinal Tap is not really a band. And that was one of the greatest initial selling points to the film's ingenuity.
There is also another extra which functions in a similar capacity as the commentary. We are treated to a huge selection of deleted scenes, many of which round out characters only mentioned or seen briefly, while others create brand new storylines and personality issues. To see how editing and fine tuning can turn a shapeless mix of styles and tones into a comic masterpiece, watch this near 70 minute reel in one sitting (just like the film). Frankly, this could be called the alternative version, or This Is Also Spinal Tap, since it presents many of the same themes, riffs, and ribbings of the movie proper. But locked inside this menagerie of failed comic bits are attempts at real anger, sadness, pathos, broad sight gags and genuine rock and roll metal moves. We are introduced to David St. Hubbins' estranged son, a new wave teenager from Britain. We overhear Derek Smalls' private phone calls as his wife leaves, begins divorce proceedings, and starts demanding large portions of his rock and roll estate. We get more sit down footage of Nigel that makes him even more vacant and self-involved. And we witness the true harpie quality of Jeanine as she steamrolls over everyone, including David. This material is eye opening, since it seems to paint a truly horrible picture of what is generally considered a sweet bunch of idiots. The deleted material exposes what would have been the seedy underbelly to the good-natured nonsense featured in the actual film.
Again, this may be an odd reaction to have to the bonus features. And it's understandable why this material is offered here. But it all goes back to the notion of fantasy versus reality. Spinal Tap has obviously grown beyond their ad lib roots and directly into the social consciousness and fabric of the culture. They now have a strange, pseudo realistic career all their own. There have been albums, music videos, television specials, and appearances (including a classic guest spot on The Simpsons). They've even toured around the world. But none of this has really been done to promote the original movie. And it leaves one wondering if there really is such a thing as a funny Spinal Tap anymore. After all, the movie is hilarious because this is not so much the story of this certain band as it is the story of every band (and everybody). But once Tap becomes real, the movie does as well. And then some of the satiric gloss dulls.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What's really missing from MGM's This Is Spinal Tap: Special Edition? Perspective. The entire package, from the faux commentary to the interview with Rob Reiner in full Marty DiBergi mode, is created and compiled to continue the misconception that the band is real and that this was just some lucky bit of documentary happenstance. And true, within the realm of classic motion picture mythology, Spinal Tap does "exist" right along side Rick's Cafe Americana and the Dagobah system. But somewhere along the line, the notion that this was just a movie made by real people of talent and incredible skill is lost. No mention is made of how the music was crafted. No one discusses the training of the actors (or lack thereof). It would have been interesting to hear how the audiences reacted to the band without knowledge that they were part of a movie. And it would be intriguing to understand how they created these characters: what they used as a basis for the personas as well as the events that occurred. Unfortunately, as long as this is a Spinal Tap product, we are treated to a This is Really Spinal Tap presentation of the extra material. It's just too bad that more making of features were not included. The one selling point that will keep the people at Ebay bidding away is the inclusion of this behind the scenes context. Sadly, MGM and the filmmakers have chosen to avoid it here.
The classic lore of rock star excess is dotted with stories of strange and anti-social behavior. The late Keith Moon and John Entwistle of The Who used to check into hotel suites and immediately toss their televisions out the window in a kind of boob tube air race to the ground floor. Van Halen demanded in their concert rider (a contractual description of the band's needs) that any bowl of M&Ms be presented to them sans brown ones. And Mariah Carrey asks for bottles of Evian water to be plentiful backstage. Not to drink mind you, but to wash her hair in. Suddenly, in light of some of these overblown antics, Nigel's complaint about having lunchmeat-sized bread to match the cold cut slices on the deli tray doesn't seem so odd. Ian's rant for a floor full of suites seems par for the course. And Derek's aluminum foil wrapped cucumber doesn't appear so over the top. Indeed, rock and roll is all about overkill—in volume, in ego, and in lifestyle. And there has only been one movie ever that has captured it in all its silly, shameful showiness. This Is Spinal Tap is one of the best comedies ever made. And the way in which it was created further cements its distinction as a classic. While there have been more examples of bad movies utilizing the genre (Airheads, Detroit Rock City) than good (Rock and Roll High School), Tap stands out, not just for how funny it is, but also for how truthful. Spinal Tap is indeed a legendary band and This Is Spinal Tap is a fittingly legendary film.
This Is Spinal Tap is found not guilty and is free to go. All charges against the cast and crew are dropped. MGM is found guilty of failing to provide contextual insight into the making of this masterwork as part of its DVD presentation and is sentenced to 30 days in county jail. Criterion is found guilty of being an accessory after the fact, since its out-of-print disc has become a heavily sought after collectible. And Ebay is found guilty of milking money out of the pockets of would be completists to obtain a Criterion Collection version of this film.
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