Is Spinal Tap (1984)
Criterion (out of print) and MGM Home Entertainment
by ANDY IHNATKO
ELEVEN REASONS WHY "THIS IS SPINAL TAP" TOTALLY RULES
1) David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel are musicians who've been good friends since their schooldays; later, Derek Smalls joined the group and they've been playing together for years. Michael McKean and Christopher Guest are musicians and comedians who've been good friends since their college days; later, Harry Shearer joined the group and they've been working together ever since.
So "Tap" is built up from very genuine foundations. Sure, it's nice that the actors are actually playing their own instruments...but you can fake that easily enough. How do you fake the subtle interplay that can only come from hanging out with someone for ten years? The relationships between these three characters and the ease with which they relate to each other is real, and that makes the characters real.
2) The zucchini wrapped in foil.
3) It never breaks the "rules" of a documentary. "Tap" wasn't film's first attempt at a mockumentary...but it defined the form because it was the first to really commit to the concept.
Duplicating the look of a documentary film means more than shaky handheld 16mm camerawork. Take a recently-released mockumentary as an example. A couple is checking into a hotel and you're not long into the scene before you smell a rat: just how many cameras did the "documentary"'s director send in for this? One camera is shooting the desk clerk, a second is behind the desk shooting the couple, and a third is picking up a master shot of the entire lobby. Would a documentary director really rent three cameras and hire three cameramen to shoot a guy getting his room key?
A similar scene in "Tap" is shot as it would in a real documentary: with a single camera that's never quite sure who's about to say something important. A lot of things contributed to the film's success but none more than the decision to have it shot by an actual documentary filmmaker: Peter Smokler, who had also operated a camera on PBS' infamous real-life-as-it-happens documentary "An American Family." He knew what the vague track of the scene was going to be before he started rolling, and he had Rob Reiner crouching behind him and occasionally whispering camera moves in his ear, but the instincts of this film's photography are those of a true documentarian.
I'm a Pathetic Film Geek and I have genetic need to spot technical goofs. It's a fair cop. But this sort of thing cripples most mockumentaries and there's a valid point to be made. You either believe what's going on in a film or you don't. You buy into the world of a mockumentary by believing that it depicts events that really happened, shot as they happened. The whole film is built up from that single concept...and when it gets chipped away, the mockumentary stops being a movie and instead becomes just a series of Amusing Little Scenes.
4) The sweet, luscious ass of Mr. Paul Shaffer.
5) McKean, Guest and Shearer are comedic geniuses with impeccable pedigrees. I've always said that the skills of a Comic Actor is a superset of those of a mere Actor, and I think "Tap" is a case in point. This is a seat-dampeningly funny film that was (for the most part) improvised on the spot. But making a real success of a film like this is like improvising a design for a public library as it's being built. Yes, fine, wonderful, bravo: you've just had a brilliantly creative idea, but I'm curious: will replacing that supporting wall with an enormous Habitrail installation cause the entire building to collapse during Story Hour?
The principal actors in "Tap" seemed to possess a psychic sense of who was carrying the ball at any given moment in a scene; they're always supporting each other, never derailing a scene's momentum for the sake of using a Great Line. A special note of awe should therefore go out to McKean, Guest, Shearer and Tony Hedra (Ian Faith).
6) They avoid the temptation to turn it into a farce. It goes back to Number Three: you have to maintain some air of believability. Tap never makes the humor so broad that things come across as an obvious, laboriously-engineered Wacky Moment. Even when miniature Stonehenge monuments are being lowered onstage, for God's sake, you buy it.
7) The band's style of music is exactly right. It almost seems as though Divine Intervention caused this film to be made just as disco-pop was turning into grinding metal.
The studio "pitch" for the film wasn't made in the form of a treatment or a screenplay but as a twenty-minute short film shot only a year or two filming began. In the short, the tunes are the same but the arrangements are pure late Seventies, with the glittery synths and fey guitarwork of Abba and their satin-headbanded ilk treacling all through it like a lobotomy needle through a forebrain.
"Tap"'s stylistic switch to metal made the songs far more durable. Even nearly two decades later, "Sex Farm," "Hell Hole" and "Big Bottom" don't seem terribly dated. They're clearly a product of the Reagan Era but don't leave the film stranded as a cultural relic, which of course is what disco did to "Saturday Night Fever," for instance.
It's also right for the group. Spinal Tap isn't supposed to be a bad band; technically they're quite competent. The tunes back up the idea that Tap's problems stem from the fact that professionally, emotionally and creatively, they haven't matured a bit in all that time since the Sixties, when they were a bunch of kids with a smash single.
8) "So long as I can have the sex, and the drugs...I don't really need the rock and roll"
9) A killer supporting cast. Let's hear it for Tony Hendra, Fran Drescher and Bruno Kirby, who knocked it out of the park even though they'd shown up for work without the improvisational background of "Tap"'s three frontmen.
10) Cred. Part of what makes all of this so believable is that so much if it is drawn from rock legends and stories and documentaries. The blow-up in the recording studio? Inspired by a legendary tape sneaked out from a Troggs session and endlessly passed around. Nigel's histrionic guitar solos? Pure Jimmy Page. Getting lost on the way to the stage? Actually happened to Bob Dylan in the documentary "Don't Look Back" (only in reverse).
None of this reflects a desire to slavishly duplicate rock folklore. But this sort of study and reference informs the rest of the production and the result feels so real that several bands had seriously accused the filmmakers of interviewing their roadies for material.
11) "There's such a fine line between clever and stupid," a phrase which should be engraved on the PowerBook of anyone who tries to duplicate the success of "Tap" without making the same investment of time, talent, and creativity.
"This Is Spinal Tap" has been released twice on DVD. In1998, Criterion produced a two-sided disc featuring nearly the complete contents of their expanded laserdisc edition. It's long out of print but pops up on eBay often enough, usually selling for somewhere between seventy and a hundred bucks. The currently-available Tap is MGM's "Special Edition" DVD, which of course can be bought for a relative song.
There's a huge amount of overlap in the two DVDs' bonus material and choosing between the two is a matter of examining the finer points.
Features widescreen aspect ratio, scene selection; original trailers and TV ads. "Special Edition" also features English, French and Spanish subtitles.
Picture is slightly superior in the new release, but the advantage is slight and probably negated by a production snafu that omitted all of the movie's original caption graphics (names of people and places). They were added at in a big hurry at the last minute, and it's a bit of a jar to see these blocky electronic graphics slapped on top of the screen.
Sound is equally superior in both editions, though the Special Edition also features Dolby 2.0.
Deleted Scenes A garden of delights awaits you no matter which edition you buy. It's a far cry from the usual standard of Deleted Scenes you find on DVDs. Each edtion features about an hour of footage, and almost all of it represents totally new story elements and performances that are (for the most part) the equal of anything else in the film.
The two editions share most of the same scenes. Footage unique to Criterion consists largely of entire subplots that were excised for time (such as the saga of Tap's opening act, a "Blondie"-like group), while the Special Edition has bits that are fun in and of themselves. Advantage: Criterion.
Bonus Material is a similar deal: lots of overlap with one or two unique bits. The Criterion Edition presents you with the original 20-minute demo version of the movie, as well as a reel that director Rob Reiner shot to promote the film to theater owners. The Special Edition offers a shortish new interview with Rob Reiner (as Marty DiBergi) and an edited-down version of Tap's real-life appearance on the Joe Franklin Show (whose terminally square host was unaware that they weren't a real group). Personally I think the Criterion material is more valuable.
Commentary Tracks The Special Edition features a commentary track by Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer, in character as Spinal Tap. The Criterion Edition boasts two, the first featuring McKean, Guest and Shearer (as themselves) and the other featuring Rob Reiner and the film's producer and editors. This category is a walkover for Criterion. There, you have McKean, Guest and Shearer being funny and talking about everything they went through to get the film made.
My opinion? The Criterion Edition's content is far more valuable to any Tap fan and easily worth the extra cost and trouble...within reason.
If you're still on the fence, well, I was hoping it wouldn't come down to this but here it is: among the Criterion's deleted scenes is a topless groupie with a set of breasts so magnificent that you'd be unlikely to see their equal anywhere other than a set of novelty salt and pepper shakers.
The only nudity to be found in the Special Edition is of two male bandmembers' bare butts being slathered with fresh plaster. I think your next move is clear.
Copyright ©2001 Andy Ihnatko. May not be redistributed without permission. Studio PR types wishing to send Andy tapes, promotional clothing, or high-end video gear in hopes of securing a positive review are advised that such efforts are futile, but they're free to try to determine how high Andy's price actually is. Mail any and all pelft to Box 279, Norwood, MA 02062. He already has a subwoofer for his home-theater but could probably use a good pair of casual slacks.