This is Spinal Tap

During the course of this project, I will be posting on all the movies that were nominated for the Oscar for Best Song from a motion picture. Two of them were from “Footloose” a couple of weeks ago, one is from this weeks “Against All Odds”. None of them should have even been on the list of nominated songs in the first place. All five slots that year should have been filled by:

Big Bottom



Rock and Roll Creation

Sex Farm

The great catalog of songs from the band Spinal Tap, featured in this documentary of their career. “Big Bottom” many be the most genius musical parody ever created, including the collected works of Weird Al.

this_is_spinal_tapI remember reading a story in the L.A. Times in 1984, in which director Rob Reiner complained that people did not understand the movie because the band featured in the documentary was not that good. Supposedly there were a whole group of people in some of the preview audiences who did not get the joke. I don’t know if the story was true or not, but it is believable in part because everyone in this film played it straight and put in the effort to make it look like this was the real deal. The rest of us just laughed and have been doing so for the thirty years since. This project has been developing slowly, and as yet to live up to the title premise. “This is Spinal Tap” begins the flood of great movies from the year. The flotsam and jetsam will still show up here but like the promise of a salad that dinner is coming, this movie let’s us know that there were great films from the year. This is the first in a series of mockumentary  films that Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer concocted over the last three decades. Essentially the film is improvised based on some simple plot lines and character situations, but the dialogue and performances are for the most part spontaneous. Rob Reiner appears on screen as film maker Marty DiBegri, a name inspired by the three bearded wonders of cinema at the time this came out; Martin Scorsese, Brian 1667_2DePalma and Steven Spielberg. He even apes DePalma and Spielberg’s affinity for ball caps while working on the set.

So I found this clip on-line of Siskel and Ebert, reviewing the film on their show from the time: ” At the Movies”

They were both enthusiastic about the film and I believe each had it on their Ten Best lists at the end of the year.

There are so many things about the film and the band it portrays that are dead on accurate. The questions from the interviews are often inane, but the answers are even more so because the band sees them as insightful. The song lyrics are sophomoric at times but in other scenes they attempt to be deep with hilarious consequences. To me the most effective song was one that mocks the sexual bravado of most heavy metal bands, but also comes up with a thumping bass line and cheerfully sexist set of lyrics. Take a listen to “Big Bottom”:

Now tell me that the worst song Stevie Wonder ever wrote (“I Just Called to Say I Love You”) deserved to be the Oscar winner that year. This song gets what the story is trying to convey and is created to further the narrative and reflect the characters. It is a brilliant piece of screenwriting and song composing. That is what the award should be about.

There are dozens of real bands that will be able to relay circumstances similar to the events that take place in this story; hotel mix ups, equipment failures, lousy promotion and band member stupidity. The reason the movie is so entertaining is that it is so close to reality. They play it close to the vest and never cross the line into outright comedic punchlines or character mugging for the camera. The delight that comes from Nigel Tufnel showing off his guitars so lovingly and so cluelessly is in direct proportion to the frequency with which we have seen that behavior before. His confusion over a suggestion that they just number the levels on their amps differently, mirrors the self deluding belief in their own deep brilliance. It also renders one of the most repeated lines from the movie, “These go to eleven.”

large_spinal_tap_blu-ray2xAt one point when the band appears to have collapsed on itself and the members talk of long delayed projects, David St. Hubbins talks of always wanting to do an album of his acoustic work with the London Symphony. In the 1980’s I spent hours trolling through bargain bin sections of record stores like Music Plus and Licorice Pizza, finding cutouts of exactly that type of material. It usually featured Rick Wakeman and an orchestra and choir. David and Derek talk about their concept for a musical based on Jack the Ripper, “Saucy Jack”, and I know that some of those Wakeman albums were based on historical characters and authors. It was just too funny to forget after having seen and lived so much of this.

One of the best visual punchlines in the movie is the band’s appearance at a music festival at an amusement park. You know it is not going well when you get second billing in this venue.Puppet_Show_and_Spinal_TapThis was the Showcase Theater at Magic Mountain, doubling for the festival stage. Seven years earlier, it was the location of the notorious “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park”. A made for TV movie that is laughably inept but does have some great concert footage from the same stage. Magic MountainI can’t resit adding a personal note here. My Father and I worked on this stage in 1971, doing a Magic show not a puppet show, although the first week we were booked there, the star we worked with was Shari Lewis and Lambchop, Charlie Horse and Hush Puppy did all make appearances. That was one reason I laughed extra hard at the sign, because I knew how true it really could have been.

There are a half dozen concert sequences in the film, and except for some audience shots that looked a little thin, even for the premise of the story, they are staged exactly as you might see in a real concert venue. Of course some of the events on stage were not the ideal version that Tap would prefer to leave us with. spinaltapbdcap3_originalDerek Smalls being unable to escape from his cocoon at the start of the show is one of those classic moments of stage stupidity that made this movie so worthwhile. Every act has had something go wrong at some point on stage in their career, it’s just that most of Spinal Tap’s shows on this tour seem to be plagued with this sort of embarrassment. The ultimate example of which is visualized in this little gif I found on line. If you have seen the movie you know what it is about, if you haven’t yet watched “This is Spinal Tap”, then the image is a preview of one of the many delights to come.hAC0D2801Since the movie came out, there have been other projects for the fictional band. There was another album (which I own) and a couple of TV specials and even a 31SE0NFW00Ltour, which I am sad to say I missed. The re-watch for this post was off of the Special edition DVD that was state of the art at the time it was purchased, but now makes me long for the blu ray disc that I know is out there mocking me. This film is one of the major reasons I can say that 1984 was a great year for movies. It stands the test of time, it started a whole series of other films using the same technique, and it is eminently quotable. It’s like how much more great can it be and the answer is “none”, none more great.


10 thoughts on “This is Spinal Tap

  1. Cult Classic for sure and yet as you state so close to reality for many bands.
    The scene with the band getting lost in the maze of backstage halls is hilarious.
    Fun post. 😉

  2. Wonderful film, absolutely hilarious — especially for someone who grew up listening to the “hair bands” of the 80s. And, of course, it had the single greatest trailer of all time:

  3. To my shame I have never seen This is Spinal Tap! I know it’s insane, but it is one of those films that I know I NEED to see but I’ve never been amped up to see it. Does that make sense?

    • I can’t judge you, all of us have blind spots here and there. I just hope this post will amp you up enough to pull the trigger. Keith, it is always great to have something to look forward to, this is in your back pocket and you can pull it out sometime when you need to. When you do, let us all know what you thought. Thanks for stopping by my friend, you are gonna really like this movie when you get to it.

  4. Pingback: The Howling (1981) Patrick Macnee Tribute/Joe Dante Festival | Kirkham A Movie A Day

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