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This Is Spinal Tap

MGM Home Video

Starring Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer

Directed by Rob Reiner

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

Despite the hype in 1999 about how The Blair Witch Project was fresh, new and original, the "mockumentary" concept is certainly nothing new. While the technique has been used to enrich serious films — like Reds and Citizen Kane — it reaches full potential when used to comic effect in films such as the dark Man Bites Dog or the infinitely lighter Waiting For Guffman or Take the Money and Run. And the very best mockumentary — or, if you will, rockumentary — is 1984's This is Spinal Tap, directed by Rob Reiner and starring Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer.

An obvious homage to Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz with a bow to The Rutles, This is Spinal Tap seeks to "capture the sights, sounds and smells of a hard-working rock band on the road." That said band is over the hill and limping across the U.S. on a tour of minor arenas, Air Force bases, and amusement parks is fundamental to the joke. Lead singer David St. Hubbins (McKean), guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Guest), and bassist Derek Smalls (Shearer) — supported by keyboard player Viv Savage and current drummer Mick Shrimpton — are doing the bus-and-hotel routine to promote their new album "Smell the Glove," badgered and nannied by their manager Ian Faith (Tony Hendra). In the course of following their less-than-stellar U.S. tour, the dead-on satire skewers virtually every facet of the glitter-rock industry and lampoons the music of self-important stadium bands like Yes, Blue Oyster Cult, Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin with searing accuracy on ludicrous songs like the crass, hilarious "Big Bottom":

My baby fits me like a flesh tuxedo
I'd like to sink her with my pink torpedo
Big Bottom... Big Bottom
Talk about bumcakes, my girl's got 'em
Big Bottom, goin' out of my mind
How could I leave this behind?

With a new album in 2000, the re-release of the film in theaters, MP3 downloads available at Tapster.com, live performances and, of course, the much-heralded DVD edition of This is Spinal Tap, one has to marvel at the surreal nature of a fictional band, created to satirize rock bands, that ends up with a fanatical fifteen-year following of its own. One especially rabid fan recently bid $510.00 on eBay for a pair of tickets to the Sept. 5, 2000 re-release premiere of the film at Hollywood's Egyptian Theater. Another shelled out $910.00 for two tickets for a live performance that same night at L.A.'s House of Blues. Both of which pale next to the $38,000.00 bid for Derek Smalls' white B.C. Rich "Eagle" bass guitar signed by Harry Shearer. These people do know it's a joke, right?

Technophiles and Tapheads have a lot of crossover members, which is doubtless why the out-of-print Criterion DVD of This is Spinal Tap — with its two commentary tracks and the original 20-minute version of the film — has sold for upwards of $200.00 on eBay (one copy undoubtedly purchased by the guy who paid $510.00 for movie tickets). Luckily for us DVD lovers who have bills to pay, MGM's re-release of the film on disc offers many of the same features, and then some: a new audio commentary (in character) by Spinal Tap, who are less than pleased by the hatchet-job done on them by that hack Marty DiBergi; a new interview with Rob Reiner (as DiBergi); music videos for "Gimme Some Money," "(Listen to the) Flower People," "Hell Hole" and "Big Bottom"; the hour of outtakes previously seen on Criterion's disc; plus TV commercials, theatrical trailers, and even Spinal Tap's appearance on "The Joe Franklin Show."

How valuable are the supplements? It depends on how fanatic a Tap lover you are. The outtakes are interesting, but mostly give one an appreciation of how good a director Rob Reiner was on his first film. As funny as many of the outtakes are — and many are very, very funny — it's easy to see in most cases why they were discarded. But they make for great viewing in themselves, especially Derek's tape of his acting debut in the Italian thriller Roma '79 and stoned chauffeur Tommy (Bruno Kirby), in his underwear, belting a Sinatra tune into a pizza crust-microphone for the band's amusement. The theatrical trailers (particularly the one featuring faux-footage of an Alpine cheese-rolling festival) are funny and a nostalgic treat for those of us old enough to actually remember when This is Spinal Tap was first released. The promo spots "Heavy Metal Memories" (parodying those awful late-night TV record collections) and commercials for a British Hot Pockets-style snack food called "Rock and Rolls" are priceless.

And the in-character commentary track is as genuinely funny as you would expect — but it's impressive more as an example of just how good McKean, Guest and Shearer are at improvisation than as a valuable addition to the film-viewing experience. Some genuine, non-joke background material would have been a great bonus; the Criterion DVD offered a second track with commentary by Rob Reiner, producer Karen Murphy, and editors Robert Leighton and Kent Beyda, which is not included on the MGM edition (nor is the informative first track, in which McKean, Guest, and Shearer play it straight). Also not offered is the original 20-minute short "Spinal Tap: The Final Tour " (made for $10,000 as a demo by Reiner, McKean, Guest and Shearer) which was also on the Criterion release. As much fun as Spinal Tap is, it would still be fascinating to get an honest-to-God look at the process behind the film. Sadly, you won't get it from this disc.

MGM Home Video's DVD offers a very sharp, new digital transfer of the film in widescreen (1.85:1) and Dolby Digital 5.1. Many of the extras (the outtakes especially) haven't been as well cared for and are quite noisy, with sometimes muffled sound. Also note that early discs were released with the subtitled locations ("Opening Night Party, Los Angeles, CA," etc.) missing from the print, while others reportedly could not turn off the French subtitles. Apparently MGM yanked those copies and fixed the problem, because a recent screening of a disc purchased on the street was just fine. If you get one without subtitles, hang on to it — some nutty Taphead may just pay $500.00 for it on eBay someday.

But enough of my yakkin'. What do you say? Let's boogie!

— Dawn Taylor

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