Mock Rock

Consistently voted the funniest comedy film of all time, it's the movie that not only kick-started the mockumentary, but is the standard all have to live up to. the Fan Can looks back to the making of This Is Spinal Tap...


This is SPinal Tap - the band



This is Spinal Tap the band

Few comedies have lines that drill through popular culture like This Is Spinal Tap: "He died in a bizarre gardening accident," "These go to 11," "There's a fine line between stupid and clever," "Shit sandwich," "Money talks and bullshit walks"...


We could on go on, but we'd be here for 90 minutes and you may as well watch the movie.


The audience for the Tap's Glasto appearance a few years ago is some testiment enough to the enduring appeal of this made-up band. It's 33 years now since Nigel Tufnel, David St Hubbins and Derek Smalls first unveiled themselves and 27 since the movie, This Is Spinal Tap, brought them to worldwide attention.


Spinal Tap - the Flower Power years

In 1978, Rob Reiner, son of comedy titan Carl Reiner (director of The Jerk, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid and The Man With Two Brains) put together a special titled The TV Show, which attempted to spoof a day's network scheduling on one hour-long programme. One of the satiric targets was a programme called The Midnight Special, an American Top of the Pops-styled show presented by legendary DJ Wolfman Jack.


Christopher Guest was a writer for The TV Show, along with his old friend Michael McKean and together they cooked up the idea of "a pea-brained English rock band." Reiner, Guest, McKean and the show's producer, Harry Shearer wrote a song, a typically overwrought combination of retarded lyrics and masturbatory guitar solos called Rock 'n' Roll Nightmare and performed it on the show, complete with poodle perm wigs and skin hugging spandex. They settled on Spynal Tap for the name, eventually becoming Spinal Tap.


Spinal Tap get down to some serious rock

Reiner was already established in television as a writer (he'd co-written the first episode of Happy Days) and as an actor (he was nationally famous as "Meathead," Archie Bunker's pinko son-in-law from the sitcom All In The Family), but he wanted to follow his pop into movies. He pitched the idea of taking this fake rock band, expanding their story to a full-blown documentary.


They marinaded themselves in rock docs, lapping up movies such as Scorsese's The Last Waltz (which showed the onstage and backstage antics of The Band's final gig) and DA Pennebaker's Don't Look Back, which covered Bob Dylan's 1965 concert tour of the UK. With interest from Lew Grade's Marble Arch films, Reiner, along with Guest, McKean and Shearer improvised a 20-minute showreel for the suits.


This is Spinal Tap - the girlfriend

But when the movie Sink The Titanic sank Grade's company, Reiner chanced upon Embassy Pictures. The fact that Embassy was run by Norman Lear, who produced All In The Family, sealed the deal.


The four of them began writing, casting and crewing in the beginning of 1982. The cameras started rolling late that year. Reiner would appear in the film as Marti DeBergi, the ficticous filmmaker whose cameras would follow Spinal Tap around after two decades in the business.


Christopher Guest, aka Tap's Nigel Tufnel, was then 34. He was a former Saturday Night Live monkey who'd already been spoofing various musical genres for The National Lampoon Radio Hour.


Spinal Tap and dwarf dancers

Michael McKean (David St Hubbins), then 35, and a friend of Guest's since art school, was most famous for Laverne and Shirley and was a former member of a 60s satirical comedy team named The Credibility Gap.


Also a member of that group was Harry Shearer, 39 the year he played thumb-sized Tap bassist Derek Smalls, and another former Saturday Night Liver.


"The idea was to construct the history of the band and characters, set the general story elements and improvise the dialogue, having hired actors we knew could play the game," said McKean. Those actors included old showbiz buddies like Billy Crystal, Ed Begley Jr and Paul Benedict and - as their ever-suffering manager, Ian Faith, Tony Hendra. Hendra was a former editor of National Lampoon magazine who had been a member of the Cambridge Footlights in the early 60s along with John Cleese and Graham Chapman and would help co-create Spitting Image in 1984.


The guitarist goes through some riffs

"We asked everyone to come in and improvise with us," said McKean. "We'd made very few miscalculations. The actors got the joke and flew with it."


"The animating impulse was to do rock 'n' roll right," said Shearer. "The four of us had been around rock 'n' roll and we were just amazed by how relentlessly the movies got it wrong. Because we were funny people it was going to be a funny film, but we wanted to get it right."


When they tried to sell it to various Hollywood studios, they were told that the film would not work. The group kept saying, 'No, this is a story that's pretty familiar to people. We're not introducing them to anything they don't really know.'


SPinal Tap - The band get searched at the airport

Guest, McKean and Shearer, all musically adept, wrote and performed all the music in the movie. "It was the easiest stuff to do," said McKean, "because that kind of bombast is such great clay to work with."


"The idea was not to play music badly or write bad songs," said Guest. "It was to take songs and perhaps craft them so that the lyrics were pretentious and that the solos were over the top."


Many of the vignettes in the film were inspired by real or apocryphal stories they'd heard. When Tufnal is moaning to Faith about the backstage catering, it was the story of Van Halen's insistence that all the brown M&M's be taken out of the sweet bowl that they had ringing in their ears. Even Marti De Bergi, the bearded, serious, in-vision filmmaker is fashioned after Scorsese (Reiner had said the name come from a combination of Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma and Steven Speilberg).


Spinal Tap and groupies

Filming lasted for 25 days and Reiner spent a year editing and refining the movie. It eventually previewed in Seattle and Dallas with walk outs and poor audience feedback. The organisers of the previews told them, "This is a complete disaster. You shouldn't even distribute it."


The film was released in March 1984. The critics love-bombed it and so did the public - eventually. Word of mouth meant the film was a modest financial success, but it wasn't until the VHS release that its cult started to balloon.


In the years since, all of them - now in their 60s - have been justly proud of Spinal Tap. The three often bring the wigs and spandex out again for the odd gig, advert and mini film. Guest, who was made a Baron in 1996, due to the death of his British father, Anthony Haden-Guest, virtually reshot This is Spinal Tap as a faux folk mockumentary in 2003's A Mighty Wind, alongside Shearer and McKean.


Spinal Tap now

Shearer now voices countless Simpsons characters (Mr Burns, Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner and Smithers are among the endless list) and McKean continues to turn up in series such as Law and Order and Boston Legal as well as being a regular member of Guest's improvisational rep gang.


But though the trio are happy to exhume these long-haired dinosaurs for Letterman performances, Glastonbury appearances and Live Earth days, there's one medium that they won't gracing with their presence again - film. "One of the most satisfying moments of the whole Spinal Tap project came five or six years after the movie," Shearer said. "Several executives were waving little bundles of money at us for a sequel. We got to say no."


Steve O'Brien



See the Tap perform Big Bottom with guest star Jarvis Cocker at the 2009 Glastonbury Festival here:



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