Saturday, April 2, 2011

This is Spinal Tap (1984) - the mockumentary to end all mockumentaries...

Unless you've been living under a rock since the 70s, you probably know the inspiration for the title of this blog. I shouldn't have to explain much about the film, or why it's important to rock music, and popular culture in general- but sadly, there are a lot of people who have never seen it, and go around using pithy catchphrases like "this one goes to eleven" without actually knowing why. So any of you younger people out there who have never seen the movie- stop reading now, and go rent a copy, or buy a copy, or do whatever you do to see it online, then come back and read the rest of this post. You won't regret it. If you have seen the movie- you won't need to read this post, but you will anyway just to share a few laughs, and relive a few funny moments with me.

For those of you that don't know- This is Spinal Tap is a "mockumentary" about a fictional has-been British band touring the US to promote their upcoming album. The band is basically reviled by critics, and nowhere near as popular as they think they are. The movie pokes fun at "rockumentary" films, the music industry, the stereotypes associated with hard rock/heavy metal bands, and anything else that gets in it's way. The movie depicts the fictional band in an array of absurd situations- most of which have an uncanny resemblance to real life incidents that actually happened to many popular bands.

The file is the brainchild of it's stars Michael McKean (as David St. Hubbins), Christopher Guest (as Nigel Tufnel), and Harry Shearer (as Derek Smalls), along with director Rob Reiner. McKean, Guest, and Shearer made many public appearances in their Spinal Tap personas- and even went so far as to produce several Spinal Tap albums to act as a companion to the film- much like Sacha Baron Cohen's media blitzes in support of his film "Borat". They have periodically returned to their "Tap" roles for since then- and continues making albums to the point where they can be considered a legitimate (but goofy) band.

The movie was a small success when it first ran in theaters, but rapidly became a cult classic phenomenon- many quotes and gags quickly became a part of pop culture, and even music industry culture. Frequently, a band that takes itself too seriously will be referred to as being "very Spinal Tap" by their peers.

One scene that has become a major pop-culture hit is, of course, the "this goes to eleven" scene.

This scene is referenced in movies, music, video games, and even in general conversation. It could be considered one of the most influential comedic scenes in film history.

The "lost backstage" scene is one that several real-life bands have said they've experienced. The 2010 documentary Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage contains a slightly humorous sequence where two of the members of Rush wander around the Toronto suburbs trying to find the place where they played their first live show. While the scene is not as direct comparison, the riff on the idea of "the band can't find the way to the gig" idea still comes off as a (possibly unintentional) homage to Spinal Tap.

The "stonehenge" scene is allegedly based on an actual problem that happened on Black Sabbath's 1983 Born Again Tour. The band wanted a 15 foot tall stonehenge replica as part of their stage set- however, at some point when the dimensions were written down, "feet" turned into "meters" (a British thing no doubt), and the band ended up with a 45 foot tall monument that was too big to fit inside (or through the doors of) any venue on the tour so only a few pieces were used. The tour also featured a dwarf in a demonic costume. Some sources claim that the mishap-filled 1983 Born Again tour was the inspiration for Spinal Tap- however, other sources reveal that this scene was written, and a demo film of it was made a year before. Sometimes truth is actually stranger than fiction.

Spinal Tap's undersized Stonehenge monument descends to the stage

Only the top section of Black Sabbath's oversize Stonehenge could fit on stage
One of the running gags in the movie is the "Smell the Glove" album itself-  the band's original cover art concept was considered too sexist by the record company (the description is loosely based on actual racy album covers by bands such as Whitesnake's "Lovehunter" or The Scorpions' "Lovedrive"). The record company then surprised the band by printing the album cover completely black with no writing on it. This pokes fun at some of the album cover trends of the time- both in the description of the original cover, and the modified cover, which has no identifying lettering on it- mimics the tactic used by Led Zeppelin for their classic fourth album. The band Metallica later released their own "Black Album" featuring an all-black cover, but with slightly off-black lettering, as a tribute to Spinal Tap. Metallica went one step further and lampooned a scene from the film in their own documentary "A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica" while debating details of their own album art. McKean, Guest, and Shearer making a guest appearance as Spinal Tap in the scene as well, erasing any doubts about the inspiration for the Metallica cover.

The movie lampoons nearly every aspect of the music business, and the often crazy situations encountered by bands on the road. Several bands have stated that they the movie could have easily been about their own experiences. "Hey, that's about us" was a common first reaction amongst touring musicians when the movie first came out.

"This is Spinal Tap" is a classic, and a must-see for any die-hard music fan. I've only touched on all the gags and funny moments in the film- and honestly, if you haven't seen it by now, something just isn't right!


  1. What did you think of the sequel and Break Like the Wind?

  2. That there was a sequel -- really just a publicity stunt for the new album -- to the "mockumentary to end all mockumentaries" is pretty darn funny by my tastes.