Over the weekend, the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival held a special 35th anniversary screening of This Is Spinal Tap. The celebrated mockumentary turned 35 years old this year, and played for a sold out house at the Beacon Theatre. Director Rob Reiner was in attendance, as were stars Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer. After an introduction by Reiner, they held the world premiere screening of the latest restoration of the film. This was followed by a Q&A and a special acoustic performance by the cast.
I was fortunate enough to be in the audience that night thanks to our good friend at Unseen Films. While the cast didn’t show up in character, it fulfilled a long goal of mine to see Spinal Tap perform. What’s fascinating is the fictional band now exists as a sort of hybrid incarnation; on stage the three actors played with the personas and the schtick they created more than three decades ago, yet they remain entirely themselves.
I want to share some thoughts on This Is Spinal Tap, the Q&A session, and the nine-song acoustic set last Saturday night. But hey, enough of my yacking. What do you say? Let’s boogie.
Puppet Show and Spinal Tap
This Is Spinal Tap is still one of the funniest movies ever made. The film chronicles a terrible British band’s bumbling American tour, with all the in-fighting and clashing egos one would expect from a real music documentary. If it was real life, it would be mortifying and cringe-inducing, but as a mockumentary, there’s a sense of the audience being in on the joke with the filmmakers. The movie is laughing at and laughing with 80s metal and a host of music career cliches; it’s like we are playing guitar along with Spinal Tap in a five-guitar band.
David (McKean) and Nigel (Guest) observe that it’s such a fine line between stupid and clever. That could be the underlying ethos of the film. The movie is about how clumsily adolescent metal can be, but it brilliantly embraces the stupidity in the act of lampooning it. Spinal Tap’s music is dumb, but you have to be intelligent to make something so dumb sound so good. Just read the lyrics from Spinal Tap’s “Sex Farm”:
Working on a sex farm / Trying to raise some hard love / Getting out my pitchfork / And poking your hay / Scratching in your henhouse / Sniffing at your feedbag / Slipping out your back door / I’m leaving my spray
Spinal Tap isn’t the first mockumentary, but it is one of the best early examples of the fake documentary form. Guest would take the genre to new heights with a trilogy of mockumentaries co-written with Eugene Levy: Waiting for Guffman (1996), Best in Show (2000), and A Mighty Wind (2003). Like those three later Guest films, Spinal Tap works so well because it creates a believable world populated with distinct personalities. The worlds of each of these mockumentary films are similar to our own; loving in some ways, mocking in others.
What is most fascinating about watching Spinal Tap or the subsequent Guest films is their sense of compassion for the characters. Spinal Tap may be a bunch of vulgar lunkheads, but notice how Reiner allows vulnerable, humane moments to play out even amid the excesses of the rock star lifestyle. As the tour continues going south, the band arrives at an amusement park. They’ve been booked to play during the day at an amphitheater. The marquee reads “Puppet Show and Spinal Tap.” The band lost Nigel after an argument about creative direction, the venues for the tour have gotten worse and worse, and now this new wretched indignity. To be fair, it might be a very good puppet show, but it continues a pattern of increasing degradation for this group of horny underdogs.
Jeanine (June Chadwick), the replacement manager and Yoko Ono figure, is also upset. She tells the band that the marquee was supposed to read “Spinal Tap and Puppet Show.”
Puppet Show and Q&A
During the post-screening Q&A, Reiner and the cast reminisced about making the film and the lore and legend surrounding it. Reiner was still amazed that his directorial debut is part of the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, and that the film plays so well even 35 years later. Upon initial release, the movie was ignored, a lot of people didn’t get the joke. Members of early test audiences weren’t even aware that Spinal Tap was a fake band. They asked why anyone would make a documentary about stupid people making bad music. Credit’s due to Reiner, Guest, McKean, and Shearer for creating such a convincing illusion, as well as cinematographer Peter Smokler, whose credits prior to Spinal Tap included camerawork on the Rolling Stones doc Gimme Shelter and the faux documentary Punishment Park. The actors have appeared in-character over the years, and fooled a few interviewers as well, including talk show host Joe Franklin.
Even though I’ve been a fan of the film for a long time, there were little tidbits of new trivia for me during the Q&A. Shearer mentioned following the metal band Saxon on tour as research. He said that the bassist played many of his basslines with just one hand, which is where Shearer got the idea for Derek Smalls to stick his left fist up in the air during shows. Reiner mentioned that the explosive death of Mick Shrimpton was not scripted but spontaneously created in the edit. All this time I thought the gag was simply the payoff to an earlier mention of a Spinal Tap drummer who spontaneously combusted on stage (i.e., Chekhov’s exploding drummer). When carving seven hours of footage down to a lean 82 minutes, unexpected surprises can happen.
I mentioned above that the trio of actors played with the personas and the schtick of Spinal Tap, which is a testament to their improv skills. When talking about Spinal Tap, Guest, McKean, and Shearer were not Nigel, David, and Derek, but they took on a kind of hybrid persona. They’re not in costume, but they were still in on the Spinal Tap joke, and as a result they were also partially in character; or maybe they were present in the spirit of Spinal Tap, and audience was as well. For example, there weren’t any microphones for the audience to ask questions, so they simply asked the crowd to shout them out. Amid a dumb cacophony of voices, a deadpan Guest and the others agreed that this was clearly an ideal way to conduct an audience Q&A. It was a Spinal Tap-esque moment.
Puppet Show and Elvis Costello
Guest, McKean, and Shearer rose from their seats after the Q&A and walked to a trio of waiting amps and instruments behind them. They proceeded to do a 30-minute acoustic set of some Spinal Tap originals over the years. What made Spinal Tap work as a film was the believable musicianship. The cast wrote and played all of the music in the movie, as well as subsequent Spinal Tap releases. They’re all capable songwriters (listen to the two gorgeous Mitch & Mickey songs from A Mighty Wind again, which McKean co-wrote with his wife Annette O’Toole), and Spinal Tap wouldn’t have been as good if the cast were lip-syncing and pretending to play guitar over songs written for them. You can fool Joe Franklin some of the time, but there are certain things you simply cannot fake.
Part of me hoped for a full-blown Spinal Tap show, complete with a drummer dying on stage, but that may have been too much to ask. This was more like their Unwigged and Unplugged tour in 2009, which involved the trio performing acoustic arrangements of Spinal Tap classics. To my knowledge, 2009 was also the last time Spinal Tap appeared wigged and plugged on stage, with shows at Glastonbury and Wembley Arena. Even if we didn’t see Derek raise his hand to project strength or some little people dancing around a littler Stonehenge, it was still so enjoyable to see the three of them playing music, and watching Guest fart about with a didgeridoo.
The biggest surprise of the night was when Elvis Costello showed up and played “Gimme Some Money” with them. It was the best song he could have possibly appeared on. In an alternate universe, it might have been a sneeringly sardonic outtake on My Aim Is True.
Here is the full setlist that night:
- “Celtic Blues”
- “Hell Hole”
- “(Listen To The) Flower People”
- “Rainy Day Sun
- “Clam Caravan”
- “All The Way Home”
- “Big Bottom”
- “Gimme Some Money” (featuring Elvis Costello)
- “Sex Farm”
Puppet Show and the Hyperreal
During the Q&A, McKean recounted the last time they played the Beacon Theatre as Spinal Tap. It was in the early 2000s. The crowd was expecting Spinal Tap, but instead they got an unannounced opening act: it was The Folksmen, the folk trio played by Guest, McKean, and Shearer in A Mighty Wind. But this was before A Mighty Wind was released, and some members of the audience had no idea that they were watching the actors who played Spinal Tap pretending to be another fictional band. The crowd heckled the folk trio, chanting for Tap to come on. This wasn’t the only instance of Spinal Tap being booed off while in the guise of The Folksmen during that tour.
This impish, prank-like comedy speaks to one of the many appeals of This Is Spinal Tap and the joys of a great mockumentary. There’s a sense of being in on the joke, or even liking the gag once you realize you’ve been fooled. You aren’t the target of mockery, but now an active participant in a larger, grander mockumentary.
In John Kenneth Muir’ book Music on Film: This Is Spinal Tap, Joe Franklin admitted in an interview that he was duped by the band, but he added, “I was really humiliated, but later on, when I became part of the joke, then I was happy.” He cites the band as one of his favorite guests because of how taken he was by their gimmick. “I’m now part of a great urban legend,” Franklin said. In getting heckled as The Folksmen, Guest, McKean, and Shearer similarly joined in on the fun of impish humiliation in service to an expanding urban legend.
Yet the urban legend of Spinal Tap is rooted in the realities of the rock world. So many moments in Spinal Tap are either overt or coincidental references to real life occurrences. While Ozzy Osbourne was on tour one year, he apparently had a botched Stonehenge set-up on stage; rather than making the model in inches rather than feet like Spinal Tap, Ozzy’s Stonehenge was done in meters instead of feet. Multiple bands have also gotten lost backstage during a gig. Watch the interviews in Spinal Tap alongside the metal doc The Decline of Western Civilization Part II, and they seem complementary; ditto the crowd interviews in the legendary documentary short Heavy Metal Parking Lot, which chronicles on the pre-show tailgaters at a 1986 Judas Priest/Dokken show. Watch This Is Spinal Tap and Anvil: The Story of Anvil back to back and marvel at the similarities between two underdog metal bands. This cannot be real, but it is… maybe.
A Vanity Fair piece on the 35th anniversary screening of This Is Spinal Tap notes that Sting was in the audience that night. A fan of the film since its release, Sting told Vanity Fair, “There’s so many truths in [This Is Spinal Tap]. It’s profound truths about all bands. We all recognize ourselves in the parody. It’s good for us!”
Spinal Tap lets everyone in on the joke, even the people who didn’t get it back then. Why make a movie about stupid people making bad music? Exactly. That’s the joke. The best mockmentaries are a reminder that unbelievable fiction is often rooted in reality, and that truth is stranger than fiction.
Or as David and Nigel might put it, it’s a fine line between fiction and non-fiction.