Stay Classy: This Is Spinal Tap

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Year released: 1984

How it fared back then: Celebrating its 30th anniversary, the rock mockumentary is actually the remainder of some 12 hours of improv footage, first cut back to 4.5 hours (this cut is rumoured to still be circulating among hardcore fans and collectors), then cut back to the 180 minutes of pure genius we know as This Is Spinal Tap. The film was written by Rob Reiner, Michael McKena, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer, who all also starred in the film as documentarian Marty DiBergi and band members David St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel and Derek Smalls.

When the film premiered in 1984, New York Times film critic Janet Maslin had nothing but good things to say about this mock documentary of rock ‘n roll, noting that it was clearly a “labor of love.” Roger Ebert gave the film a perfect four stars and called it “one of the funniest, most intelligent, most original films of the year.” It later made his top-10 list for that year.

While the film didn’t do great in theatres, it gained some strides and a loyal cult following after being released on video.

Why it’s lasted: Aside from the sheer fact that the costumes, music and performances from that decade can be both terribly awesome and cringe-worthy, Spinal Tap has lasted for the same reasons classic rock has lasted—it’s simple, entertaining and, well, nostalgia reins. Audiences appreciate its cleverness and spot-on representation of the musical style, the music industry and the assumed pretentions of successful musicians all presented in a classic documentary style. This film also transcends time, as the humour and content weren’t based on current events that younger audiences may not be so knowledgeable about now.

In conversations with my peers and colleagues, it was also suggested that this film may have influenced such reality TV parodies as The Office or Modern Family. I was also told that Old Navy had in its inventory children’s shirts that featured playable guitars with small, portable amps that went to 11—which is absolutely awesome, at least for the amusement of parents anyway.

Classic moments:

There are just too many to list, but here are some of my favourites.

  • Every musical number is just well-done and rather catchy; the songs tend to get stuck in your head, even when the lyrics are outrageously sexual (“Sex Farm Woman”)
  • When Marty shares the media’s album reviews with the band, more specifically, this part: Marty: “The review you have on Shark Sandwich, which was merely a two-word review, just said, ‘Shit Sandwich’…” The group’s response: “That’s not real, is it? You can’t print that!”
  • Nigel explaining to Marty why his amp’s levels go to 11—not just 10. “Why don’t you just make nine louder and have 10 be the top number and just make it a little louder?”…[pause] “These go to 11.”
  • The band’s first live performance of their Stonehenge-based song, when the monument on the stage is in danger of being crushed by dancing “dwarfs.”
  • When bassist Derek gets stuck in his pod. They try everything to get him out—including a torch—until it finally opens and he confidently steps out to catch the very end of the song…but not the pod before it closes.
  • St. Hubbins, the patron saint of footwear
  • Clips from the members’ one-on-one interviews with Marty as the credits role: “Have a good time all the time…that’s my personal philosophy” and Nigel really considering whether he could work in a chapeau shop—“What are the hours?”
  • The big reveal of the band’s new album design for Smell the Glove and the ensuing debate on the line between stupid and clever. “It’s like how much blacker can it be? And the answer is none… None more black.”
  • When Nigel plays the piano for Marty, a very moving piece in D minor (“the saddest of all keys”) that’s part of a musical trilogy: Marty: “It’s very nice. What do you call this?” Nigel: “This piece is called ‘Lick My Love Pump.’”

Does it hold up?: Absolutely! There has been a lot of debate surrounding whether this film should be considered a “classic”—but I just don’t see why it shouldn’t be; what argument is there, really?


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