Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Stubs - This Is Spinal Tap


THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984) Starring: Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Rob Reiner. Directed by Rob Reiner. Produced by Kathy Murphy. Written by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Rob Reiner and Harry Shearer. Music by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Rob Reiner. Run Time: 82 minutes. Color. US. Mockumentary.

When the over-the-hill rock band Spinal Tap goes on tour to promote their latest, but not yet released studio album, Smell the Glove, Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner), a TV commercial director, jumps at the chance to document it. What he hopes to capture is not only the band on stage, but also backstage as well. Focusing on the three members of Spinal Tap, lead singer David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), lead guitarist, Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) and bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) the film watches the group fall apart as the tour skids from one disappointment to another on a seemingly never ending downward spiral.

In its current configuration, Spinal Tap is a metal band, whose songs sing the praises of girls with big behinds “Big Bottoms” and ancient rituals “Stonehenge”. But as we learn through “old television footage” and interviews, the band has been around since the mid-1960s. Their first claim to fame came as The Thamesmen with the hit “Gimme Some Money”. Later changing their name to Spinal Tap, they had another hit with the psychedelic “Listen to the Flower People”. Along the way, the group had lost drummers all killed in various ways, added a keyboardist and gone heavy metal.

As the tour starts, Spinal Tap is ineptly managed by Ian Faith (Tony Hendra), who despite carrying a cricket bat, not only can’t get the record label, Polymer Records, to release Smell the Glove with a controversial cover, but he can’t even book the band’s hotel rooms. But despite concert dates being cancelled along the way due to low ticket sales the band seems to be happily going along, that is until St. Hubbins’ girlfriend Jeanine Pettibone (June Chadwick) decides to join the tour. Tufnel is not happy to hear that. Jeanine, a nod to Yoko Ono, is manipulative and she begins to act as if she is one of the decision makers for the band.

Faith’s ineptness as band manager continues; Polymer releases the new album in an all-black cover without consulting the band. But the last straw is that when a hastily drawn stage prop for the band’s song “Stonehenge” is 18 inches high instead of 18 feet. When St. Hubbins suggests that Jeanine co-manage the band, Faith quits.

The tour continues, playing ever smaller venues. Tufnel, feeling marginalized by Jeanine’s influence over his band mate, quits the group before the tour is over. The next stop is no better, as the band finds itself second billed to a puppeteer. But Tufnel returns before the last show to announce that the band, like every other band at this time, was big in Japan. Faith wants to set up a tour and the band agrees, even though they lose their current drummer when Mick Shrimpton (R.J. Parnell, drummer for Atomic Rooster) explodes on stage.

There is much to like about this film. The humor never gets bawdy, blue or gross, which sadly seems to be the current norm. They are poking fun at their subject matter, in a similar way as The Rutles did with The Beatles. The fact that Spinal Tap are so right on with their depictions makes the film even funnier. When Tufnel is showing off his custom Marshall amp which goes up to 11, rather than only 10, he seems genuinely stumped when DiBergi asks him why not just make 10 louder. And when Tufnel is showing DiBergi his guitar collection, there is one that even he has never played and he won’t let DiBergi even look at it, much less touch it.

Everything is there to be skewered by this film: inept Tour Managers, rich and out of touch Record Label executives, worthless promotional men, bossy girlfriends, exploding drummers, cocktail parties with mimes as waiters, garage/skiffle bands, flower power anthems and the egos of rock stars. This Is Spinal Tap takes aim and for the most part hits the bull’s eye every time.

The songs are funny and are surprisingly listenable even out of context of the film. Spinal Tap has a bit of a cult following and has even released additional studio albums and toured, with the three main musicians as Spinal Tap.

For the most part, the main people behind this film were better known for their work on TV prior to making this movie. Rob Reiner was Michael Stivic aka Meathead on the All in the Family series and Michael McKean was Lenny on the long running Laverne and Shirley. Shearer may have one of the most interesting careers in Hollywood. He had appeared as a child on the Jack Benny Show (1953) and was in the Leave It to Beaver pilot (1957). Mel Blanc, perhaps the best known voice from the Golden Age of Hollywood Animation, took Shearer under his wing. Shearer would go on to be, along with McKean, part of the Credibility Gap, a Los Angeles based sketch comedy troupe. Shearer would go onto appear for several seasons on Saturday Night Live. Christopher 

Guest, on the other hand, had been on Broadway and had worked with National Lampoon both on radio and on stage. Guest had previously appeared as Nigel Tufnel as early as 1978 on the sketch program, The TV Show and as a musician on the 1979 Laverne and Shirley spinoff music album, Lenny and the Squigtones.

Following this film, they have all found success in films. Reiner has directed such classics as The Princess Bride (1987), When Harry Met Sally (1988), Misery (1990), A Few Good Men (1992) and The American President (1995). McKean, who had already appeared in movies before Spinal Tap, has worked consistently since then appearing in such films as The Big Picture (1989), Auto Focus (2002), and Whatever Works (2009). Shearer has become a staple on the Simpsons TV series, voicing such popular characters as Mr. Burns, Waylon Smithers, Ned Flanders and Dr. Hibbert. Christopher Guest, who directed and co-wrote with McKean The Big Picture, is perhaps best known for directing and starring in a series of mostly improvised comedies including: Waiting for Guffman (1996), Best In Show (2000), A Mighty Wind (2003) and For Your Consideration (2006). McKean and Shearer are also part of the recurring cast members that Guest uses in his films.

This Is Spinal Tap works on so many levels. You do not have to be a fan of Heavy Metal to get the humor. You just need to stay alert, as the humor is both sophisticated and comes at you from all sides. Everyone is funny, from the main stars to the cameos by Billy Crystal and Paul Schaeffer. The film stands on its own, but is also a springboard for a group of multi-talented individuals who would all go on to greater things in entertainment. The film is also a forerunner to the many mockumentary sitcoms that are currently on the air, such as The Office, Parks and Recreation and Modern Family.

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