On Monday I talked about the soundtrack to the movie This Is Spinal Tap. Today I’ll talk about the movie itself.
Of course, before I get into the main event, rest in peace again to Ric Parnell. Parnell played Mick Shrimpton in the movie and was the drummer for the 1984 album as well as the 1992 effort Break Like The Wind. Parnell died just a few days ago at age 70.
In terms of movies about music, there honestly are not many that measure up to This Is Spinal Tap. The “mockumentary” was a battle to get funding for and film, and then was a slow-burner that edged its way to cult classic and then eventually immortal status. While there are a handful of music films that are held in the highest regard (The Last Waltz comes to mind), there are few, if any, that do for rock and metal what Spinal Tap did.
The movie is a laugh riot, but the jokes aren’t the kind of setup-punchline thing. Much of the movie was done improv style and the jokes are left in a deadpan form for whoever wants to pick them up. Anyone else saying some of the stuff in the movie would come off just plain dumb, but it’s the most brilliant comedy when delivered in the movie.
And of course the film’s greatest legacy is that it’s almost not really a parody. There are many tales of rock stars seeing the movie and not finding humor in it – Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and The Edge of U2 are a few who thought the movie was so spot on that it wasn’t funny. Many musicians have recalled their own “Spinal Tap” moments on tour, the fake band’s name is now a term for real life happenings. And even the idea of having a black album cover would come to fruition – while Spinal Tap’s Smell The Glove didn’t get traction in America, Metallica’s “Black Album” seven years later would be the best-selling album of the 1990’s. That probably has more to do with Metallica than with Spinal Tap, but the parody band were openly cited as inspiration for Metallica’s cover.
And that’s really the thing about Spinal Tap – they’re pretty much just another band from the era of rock and metal. They informed the scene as much as they provided commentary on it. Rob Reiner went to see Judas Priest live as part of his homework to make the movie. And tell me that you don’t see Iron Maiden all over Spinal Tap, they’re almost the same damn band. Spinal Tap provided legitimate influence to countless bands over the years, and every big band has their “Spinal Tap” story of some absurd event almost too silly to be real.
This Is Spinal Tap is a movie that has entertained many rock denizens in the 38 years since its release and it has also bore real influence even as what was originally a mock band. The movie just rolls from start to finish with a completely packed guest list and absurd gag after absurd gag. It entered the general pop culture lexicon in many avenues – Harry Shearer’s gig on The Simpsons led to a Spinal Tap episode, Fran Drescher reprised her role as Bobbi Fleckman on her hit 90’s sitcom The Nanny, the esteemed Mick Fleetwood actually risked life and limb to become a Spinal Tap drummer for a spell in the early 2000’s, and Christopher Guest has helmed a series of award-winning mockumentaries in the same style of Spinal Tap. This led to a huge mash-up in 2003 on A Mighty Wind, where Guest mockumentary regulars Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara joined the other Spinal Tap primary players and a host of other Hollywood talent in a folk revival mockup that garnered a similar reception to Spinal Tap.
There is no questioning the legacy This Is Spinal Tap has left on the rock landscape. To wrap up I want to recall three of the movie’s most famous scenes. This isn’t a list of “my favorites” per se, honestly the whole movie is my favorite. But these scenes are the ones that people go back to and that people who don’t even know Spinal Tap at least have heard of the references.
This scene is an absolute laugh factory – the band are getting ready to go on stage to a very energetic crowd in Cleveland and begin their journey from backstage. The only problem is that backstage to stage is a journey longer than one of Skyrim’s longest dungeons. The band get lost at multiple points and have to ask for directions from an employee, but even that doesn’t get them on stage. The band are lost in a broken down labyrinth.
This is one of the many scenes that have happened to countless musical acts in real life. I can’t locate the exact text now but the scene might have been inspired by a similar gaffe by Tom Petty. Even if not, rock stars and luminaries from every genre of music have their own Hello Cleveland! Stories.
These Go To 11
This scene doesn’t need much exposition – I’d imagine it’s the most famous line from the movie. Nigel is showing Marty an impressive guitar collection (the sustain!) when the Marshall head that goes to 11 is shown.
And it’s not just the concept, it’s also in the delivery – when Marty suggests that 10 could be made louder, Nigel simply chews his gum for a moment and then remarks “these go to 11.” Just amazing delivery.
This is the phrase that people know from the movie even if they don’t know the movie. It’s the signature line and it’s why we’re all here.
It’s all there – the band break into their epic, brought out to revive flagging attendance numbers on tour. Everything is going great, then a Stonehenge monument falls from the sky that isn’t big enough to use as a footrest. The aftermath sees manager Ian Faith quit the band and a path to oblivion unfolds – that is, until Sex Farm hits the charts in Japan.
Stonehenge is everything that goes wrong with stage props, something that happens to bands all the time. But Stonehenge actually did happen to a real band, just in the opposite fashion – in 1983, Black Sabbath had to cancel several Canadian shows on their Born Again tour because their Stonehenge replica was too big to fit in venues. And the funniest part is that one didn’t influence the other – Spinal Tap had a draft version of their Stonehenge gag before Black Sabbath’s tour. It’s just one of rock’s freaky coincidences. Spinal Tap would twist the bit and do the “too big” version in 1992 at their Royal Albert Hall performance.
Any time I go back and watch the movie, it’s always the Stonehenge scene that has me on the edge of my seat. It’s the movie’s most pivotal moment and the biggest turning point for a band slowly flailing away on a tour that isn’t working. Everything before builds up to Stonehenge and everything after is a result of what happened. The whole scene, sadly not entirely represented in the clip, is really the point of the movie.
And there we have it – one of the greatest movies of all time and one of rock and metal’s most important moments. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about the film in the future, this is a well that there is plenty more to go down before hitting bottom.
After all, what’s wrong with being sexy?