Before I got the chance to go see 1984’s This is Spinal Tap at the movie theater, I heard all about it one evening when I met up with an old friend and some of his fellow British musicians in a Manhattan recording studio. After having seen it only once, I was fascinated how much they were able to quote from the film. I also got the sense that “Tap” (as they called it) really hit home on the realities of being a rock musician.
By now of course, like many other self-professed music geeks, I can’t even remember how many times I have seen Spinal Tap . I also have seen every outtake and bit of bonus material that has come out since on DVD. In fact, not only it is my favorite music movie, it is without a doubt my fave flick of all time.
The film was co-written by Rob Reiner (its actual director and the on-screen director of this “mockumentary”) and comedians Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer. These three funny guys also happen to be real life musicians which enabled them to both star in the movie as well as perform the songs that they also wrote for the screen. This feature was clearly one of the keys to the movie’s magic and authenticity.
It’s hard to pick where to start since the impact of Spinal Tap is multi-dimensional. Let’s begin with the fact that the movie essentially established the genre of the mockumentary whereby something presented as being straight is fully loaded with subtle humor and sarcasm. Guest, McKean and Shearer would later produce several more worthy works in this style.
Then there is the music. While songs like “Big Bottom” and “Sex Farm” reek of marginalizing Heavy Metal, others like “Hell Hole” and “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight” could have come right off a Judas Priest LP. The guys wrote some great songs, played them quite well and staged some realistic, albeit often comical, concert footage. In reviewing the band’s history, there’s even great 60’s homage in expertly-crafted songs like “Gimme Some Money” and “(Listen to the) Flower People.”
Another thing to love about Spinal Tap is that it just may hold the Hollywood record for the most (and best) cameo appearances. This is a likely a testament to the attraction of both the film’s subject matter and the fondness many celebs have for its stars. From the late Bruno Kirby as their Sinatra-canonizing limo driver, to Dana Carver as a mime waiter and Paul Shaffer as a numnuts record biz guy, these are bonus Easter eggs to this great film.
But when it gets right down to it, this movie is just incredibly funny, and since it comes from a place of passion for rock music, it hits right at the core of what we all know and love about it. And if you play in a band, it gets even closer to the heart of your daily life.
However, This is Spinal Tap took the impact that a movie can have to another level. Has there ever been a film that has so affected popular culture like it did? Serious music fans referencing Spinal Tap is about as commonplace as dissing the Dave Mathews Band, Coldplay or [fill in the blank]. Even non-geeks get into the act when the opportunity arises. This is just funny stuff that we can relate to not only the rock ‘n roll lifestyle, but sometimes to just life in general.
Forgive me now as I can’t resist going through some of these. Of course, the most well-known and versatile quote to reference is Tap guitarist Nigel Tufnel’s ode to the volume nob on his amp of “It goes to eleven.” A great quip when you are wanting to take something up a notch.
Then there’s the hilarious “Hello Cleveland” that the band hollers while trying to find out how to get from the dressing room to the stage. I wonder how many times since this has been shouted by a band on its way to start a show.
Now here’s another “Spinal Tap Moment” that I got to use in real life. There’s a scene where the struggling Tap is playing an amusement park and the marquee mistakenly billed them as “Spinal Pap.” I once saw that a record store had misnamed a young new band that it was having for an in-store performance. I kindly informed the record store clerk about their mistake, and he got it when I said that they almost made a “Spinal Tap Moment.”
The list goes on and on. How about saying “Doubly” instead of “Dolby?” Making references to mysteriously dying drummers. Referring to a large music venue as the “Enormodome.
Whatever it is that draws you in, This is Spinal Tap is an amazing film that will likely forever find itself relevant. If you have never seen it, do so right now. Otherwise, like me, go watch it for the eleventh time.