The career of fictional rock group Spinal Tap is a high decibel example of life imitating art imitating life. Since their 1984 debut as England’s loudest band, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer have staged more comebacks and reunions than the Who (one of the major targets of their initial satirical assault). At some points along the way, they seem to have lost track of the joke, such as on their largely laugh-free 1992 album, Break Like the Wind. Even the most enthusiastic fans of the movie that started it all, This is Spinal Tap, could be forgiven for feeling the freshness has long since worn off the gag.
What makes the new DVD release of Spinal Tap such a pleasure, then, is the opportunity to experience anew one of the funniest films of the 1980’s – one that launched the "mockumentary" format as a genre unto itself. In 82 concise minutes (a point at which many of today’s Hollywood mammoths are just gearing up for the second act), the improvisatory comedy manages to send up virtually every rock and roll cliche in the book, Clearly it cuts close to the bone; some rock stars, such as Tom Waits, find it too depressing to watch, while it seems that many of the bands to come of age in the years since the movie’s initial release have used it as their playbook. (Witness nearly any episode of VH1’s Behind the Music series.)
McKean, Guest and Shearer are, respectively, David St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel and Derek Smalls, the hirsute musicians who form the core of Spinal Tap (their drummers are notoriously short-lived, occasionally exploding onstage). What began as a British Invasion pop band evolved through 60’s psychedelia into 70’s pomp rock. By the early 80’s, they’re a dinosaur act falling apart at the seams, and it is at this point that documentary filmmaker Marty DiBergi (played by Tap‘s director Rob Reiner) turns his cameras on the band, following their disastrous American "Smell the Glove" tour.
No rock and roll convention goes unpunctured, from dim Nigel’s backstage tantrum about the catering trays (the cold cuts don’t match up with the bread) to the botched onstage art-rock theatrics (a drastically undersized Stonehenge prop, a Plexiglas cocoon that fails to open on schedule, trapping Derek inside) to the Yoko-esque girlfriend who becomes the scapegoat for the band’s disharmony. Nigel’s custom amplifier that "goes to eleven" has spawned not only real-life imitations but an overused catchphrase referring to anything that exceeds expectations.
Spinal Tap was Reiner’s first directorial effort, and he’s never again come close to capturing the playfulness and spontaneity he does here (in fact, he’s rarely tried, content instead to churn out fuzzy liberal dramas like Ghosts of Mississippi and The American President). No doubt this is due to the fact that this movie is a true collaborative effort; though there was no script, Reiner worked with McKean, Guest and Shearer to shape the direction of each scene. The actors then improvised all the dialogue and incidental action. Though the casting of even the smallest roles is first rate (Fred Willard, Fran Drescher, Paul Benedict and Paul Shaffer all deliver memorable moments), it is the three leads who pull off a minor miracle here. Never straying far from caricature, they nevertheless manage to invest the Tap members with appealing humanity. Derek is the philosophical searcher of the group, the one who spurs the band’s conceptual leanings; David is the brains of the outfit, which isn’t saying much; and Nigel…well, as he says, "it’s a fine line between clever and stupid." Guest brings a childlike innocence to the daftest Tap, making him a spiritual cousin of the very different character he would play in his later mockumentary feature, Waiting for Guffman. All three actors disappear so completely into their roles, it’s not hard to believe that many audience members mistook them for a real band during the film’s initial run.
The DVD is loaded with Tap ephemera: music videos for "Hell Hole" and "Big Bottom"; a bizarre early trailer for the movie consisting of alleged footage from a Norwegian cheese-rolling festival; an appearance by the band on "The Joe Franklin Show," wherein the host appears completely oblivious to the fact that his guests are putting him on. The disc also contains over an hour’s worth of outtakes, giving a fascinating window onto the process of assembling a feature-length film from mountains of improvised material. The deleted scenes are hit and miss – it’s easy to see why extended bits involving Bruno Kirby’s limo driver and Billy Crystal’s mime waiter were cut – but it’s just as easy to see why these scenes had to be done in the first place. Inspiration can’t be planned, after all, and many of the movie’s best moments are the offhand ones captured like lightning in a bottle.
Best of all is a brand-new commentary track by McKean, Guest and Shearer in character as Spinal Tap (a previous laser disc edition of the movie featured a track by the actors as themselves). The premise of the commentary is that the band members feel they’ve been misrepresented by the selective editing of DiBergi’s film and are taking this opportunity to set the record straight. For Tap devotees who have numbed themselves to the film’s charms through repetitive viewings, watching This is Spinal Tap with this often hilarious audio track serves as the perfect reminder of what made the movie so special in the first place. As Tap themselves might say, "See it all over again…for the first time!"