How many movies introduced a phrase into the Oxford English Dictionary? Co-writer/director Rob Reiner’s seminal faux-documentary This Is Spinal Tap invites high definition audiences to go “up to eleven” all over again this week, with a Blu-Ray debut that includes most of the plentiful special features on its 2000 DVD release. Though almost all the bands that the film gently, shrewdly satirized are forgotten now, Tap‘s brilliant set pieces and hilarious dialogue keep it as fresh as new vinyl. It’s a bona fide classic, included on the National Film Registry and seen as a major influence on any number of films since, most nobatly co-star Christopher Guest’s quartet of similar escapades.
Yet Spinal Tap, true to the rock and roll archetype, came from humble beginnings. Filmed on a shoestring budget, composed largely of improvisational setups and sometimes buoyed by unexpected cameos, its was something of a flop upon its release in 1984, only subsequently gaining fame on cable TV, numerous home video releases, a guest spot on The Simpsons, and a 1992 “reunion” album titled Break Like The Wind. But originally the cast – Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, and Guest - may have gone into character a little to much: at the time of its release all three actors were relatively unknown (except McKean, and then only from his role as goofball Lenny on Laverne & Shirley) so a perception that the film was “real” and genuine dogged its box office performance.
Reiner appears as Marty DiBergi, a semi-fictionalized version of himself – how fictionalized is never really made clear - attempting to film the group’s Tap Into America tour, a comeback meant to support their latest album, Smell The Glove. But accidents, miscommunication and bad luck keep getting in the way, thanks in no small part to the members’ cherished delusions and hubris. To quote a review itself quoted in the film, “They are awash in a sea of adolescent sexuality and bad poetry,” with no particular desire to find their way out. They’ve got their own dynamic, and it works for them: “I feel my role in the band is to be somewhere in the middle of that,” bassist Derek Smalls (Shearer) says while comparing the others to fire and ice, ”kind of like lukewarm water.”
Things gets worse for the hapless Tap quickly. Performance engagements are cancelled with no notice, their record label hates their proposed cover art (its all-black cover presaging Metallica’s eponymous LP by six whole years), and personality clashes drive a wedge between band leaders David St. Hubbins (McKean) and guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Guest). There’s even a Yoko Ono character in the form of St. Hubbins’ girlfriend (June Chadwick), who pronounces Dolby as “doubly” and suggests the group perform in masks denoting their astrological symbols. The breaking point comes as they attempt to play a dance at an Air Force base while radio signals from the runway control tower overpower their instrument receivers.
Equally hilarious – and just as squirm-inducing for audiences in on the joke – are the original songs the cast composed: titles like “Sex Farm Woman,” “Rock and Roll Creation,” and the epically pretentious concept piece “Stonehenge” nailed metal’s goofy preoccupation with sex and mysticism in the 70s while remaining oddly, imminently hummable. The songs aren’t meant to be great, but they’re not any worse than what they reflected, either. And in a case of life imitating art, heavy metal acts have spent the last 25 years alternately comparing and distancing themselves to Tap’s sound and misadventures. Robert Plant, Ozzy Osbourne, and Eddie Van Halen have all admitted to having events depicted in the film happen to them as well.
Also appearing in hilarious but often brief roles are Fran Drescher, Howard Hessman, Paul Shaffer, Patrick Macnee, Angelica Houston, Dana Carvey, Fred Willard, Bruno Kirby, Ed Begley, Jr. and many others, most notably Billy Crystal in a scene-stealing cameo as a ruthless mime waiter. Highlights of the extra features include in-character commentary tracks by McKean, Shearer and Guest, a featurette entitled “Catching Up With Marty DiBergi,” four music videos, two short films, and miscellaneous promotional materials. Fourteen deleted scenes, also included, almost comprise a second movie by themselves. The set’s second disc features the band’s Live Earth performance and a National Geographic interview with Guest, as Tufnel, about Stonehenge.
- Michael Kabel