Study Guide

This Is Spinal Tap Introduction

This Is Spinal Tap Introduction


Release Year: 1984

Genre: Comedy, Musical

Director: Rob Reiner

Writer: Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Rob Reiner

Stars: Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer


Remember that Iron Maiden tour in 1977 where the headbanging was out of control and Bob Sawyer got thrown out of the band because he was pretending to play guitar with his teeth but totally wasn't and everyone knew it?

Neither do we.

No worries, though. You've got the next best thing: This is Spinal Tap. Come to think of it, it's the best thing.

This is Spinal Tap follows the fictional (don't tell them that) legendary British heavy metal band Spinal Tap on its 1982 North American tour to promote the release of their new album. After 17 years, the band members have lost none of their enthusiasm but lots of their fans. The film is a dead-on parody of the whole rock documentary genre, with its inside look at happenings onstage and off. It morphed the rockumentary into a mockumentary—the fake documentary—and the rest is (fake) history.

  

Spinal Tap was the first ever megahit mockumentary; it inspired generations of filmmakers and TV writers since to give it a go. Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman? Mockumentaries. The Office and Parks and Recreation? Mockumentaries. Any comedy that looks and feels like a documentary, but…so isn't.

Because of the documentary format, and the fact it's basically just one long sketch, it's not particularly complex, plot-wise. Short story even shorter: David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel, who have been playing together since they were eight years old, find that their friendship and band chemistry are tested when David's girlfriend sticks her nose in where it's not unanimously wanted. Other than that, it's just about the aging, fading headbangers playing some wicked loud tunes, and hoping that their once-rabid fans become rabid again.

Very few have topped what director Rob Reiner and company were able to achieve with this equal-parts-hilarious-and-utterly-ridiculous send-up of 1980s hard rock hair bands. The 1984 film, produced by Spinal Tap Productions (probably not a coincidence), was not an immediate hit. Just like the song "Sex Farm Woman," it needed time to burrow deep into the audience's consciousness before ultimately cementing its legacy.

But the film eventually became a cult favorite.

  • The late great film critic Roger Ebert thought it was "one of the funniest movies ever made" (source).
  • Nirvana's drummer at the time, Dave Grohl, called it "the only rock movie worth watching" (source). (Kurt Cobain agreed.)
  • Sting told Rob Reiner that he always watches it before he goes on tour (source).
  • On the film's 30th birthday, Rolling Stone insisted "it remains the funniest, truest, most emotionally honest movie ever made about rock & roll and the people who live for it" (source).
  • And in 2002, the Library of Congress finally got around to naming the film "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" (source).

Heck, we knew that in 1984.

What is This Is Spinal Tap About and Why Should I Care?

You should care because David and Nigel are visionaries. Poets. Fire and Ice.

That's according to the bass player, Derek Smalls, anyway. And this guy must know what he's talking about. You have to be something of a visionary yourself to grow facial hair like his.

But most of all, you should care because this film got the whole "mockumentary" ball rolling. The format is done to death nowadays, but back in 1984 it was truly innovative. There were a few mockumentary-style films about bands before Spinal TapA Hard Day's Night comes to mind—but those films weren't really shooting for realism. As Rob Nixon of TCM points out, the true ancestors of Spinal Tap were the real rock documentaries:

Anyone who has ever seen a "factual" film about rock musicians, or even brief interviews and band profiles, will recognize the elements here: backstage squabbles, power struggles, and petty jealousies; pretentious comments about the music and an over-inflated sense of importance; on-stage catastrophes and bungled personal appearance events; the hyper-adolescent sexuality of a bunch of overgrown boys on the loose; and the tendency toward hagiography on the part of those who produce-direct these types of documentaries. (Source)

The film was totally convincing. Rob Reiner recalls screenings where audience members would ask each other why someone would make a film about such a mediocre band. They completely fell for it. Real heavy metal groups found it to be a disturbingly accurate portrayal of life on the tour. Ozzy Osbourne (who, btw, was one of the people who thought the film was real) admitted he'd once got lost on the way to the stage, just like our hapless boys in the film (source).

Art imitated life in Spinal Tap and art returned the favor: the film spawned a real—well, "real"—Spinal Tap. The boys in the band—Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, and Michael McKean—took the fake band on a real tour. Or is it the real band on a fake tour? Anyway, the guys still performed as Spinal Tap 25 years later, aging rockers indeed.

That's what we'd call a successful mockumentary.

Trivia

At one point, Nigel wows the crowd by playing his guitar with a violin. Musically, it doesn't quite work, but at least the creativity involved is impressive. As it happens, however, it's not as creative as you might think. This was actually a nod to Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, who was famous for playing his guitar with a violin bow. But if Page took things to ten, then Nigel certainly took them to eleven. (Source)

Originally, Rob Reiner was slated to be just another member of the band, rather than the director of the documentary who went around interviewing them. Why did that fall through, you ask? Apparently, according to Harry Shearer (Derek Smalls), Reiner "didn't look good in tights." You know, we don't have a hard time believing that. (Source)

There was one small storyline that didn't make it to the big screen. It involved those cold sores we see on the band members' lips at one point in the film. And, uh, it has to do with, a virus carried by a certain singer that both of them were intimate with. But we don't want to herp on it. (#sorrynotsorry) (Source)

This Is Spinal Tap Resources

Websites

SpinalTapFan.com
The name says it all. Here you can find the band's discography, the film script, merchandise, book and record store, and more. Not to be confused with BIGspinaltapfan.com, which is a site for people who are really into the medical procedure.

Fanpop
Images, videos, polls and links. Plus, an actual lock of Michael McKean's hair. (That might be a lie.)

Decided: A Comedy Classic
The reviews are 95% "Fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes.

Book or TV Adaptations

Spinal Tap A to Zed: A Guide to One of England's Loudest Bands
It's not really an adaptation—more just a biography of the group. And it's written by the guy who runs SpinalTapFan.com, so you know he's obsessed.

Articles and Interviews

Roger Ebert's Review
Four stars out of four stars. The legend knows his movies.

15 Things You Might Not Know About This is Spinal Tap
You know what we want. You know what we need. Or maybe you don't. Do we have to come right fat out and tell you everything?

Voltaire's Nose?
That was the name of one of Christopher Guest's bands. Seriously. "Spinal Tap" seems tame by comparison. Here's an article about the actors' real musical backgrounds and how Spinal Tap came to be.

Don't Trust Any Movie Over 30
Rolling Stone feels the love on the 30th anniversary of the film's release.

"Sincere Idiocy"
Even the stodgy New York Times loved the film.

Video

Live Earth interview
The year is 2007, and the band is still rockin'.

Gimme Some Money
The classic tune in its entirety. Enjoy. Or don't. We're too rock and roll to care.

Trailer
Watching this trailer just made us want to see it again.

Images

Open Culture
The band making their rock star faces. Zoolander could pick up a few tips.

"These go to eleven."
So does Nigel's IQ, if we had to guess.

The Telegraph
It must have been windy at this photo shoot.

Ticketmaster
The members of the band, all still alive and kicking. Kicking butt. Do you think they've aged well?

It's a Meme
That "goes to 11" has entered the popular imagination.

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