April 28, 2019
by Carla Hay
The 1984 comedy film “This Is Spinal Tap” will probably go down in film history as the most influential mockumentary of all time. The movie, directed by Rob Reiner and mostly improvised by the cast, is a mock documentary of a fictional British heavy-metal band called Spinal Tap, as the band goes through the humiliation of a career downward spiral. Spinal Tap’s core members are egotistical lead singer/rhythm guitarist David St. Hubbins (played by Michael McKean), simple-minded lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (played by Christopher Guest) and laid-back bass player Derek Smalls (played by Harry Shearer). The band is rounded out by an ever-changing lineup of keyboard players and drummers. There’s a running joke in the movie that Spinal Tap drummers often meet an unfortunate demise.
“This Is Spinal Tap” takes place mostly during the band’s disastrous tour of the United States, where the band’s current album (“Smell the Glove”) is a flop, and Spinal Tap performs to increasingly smaller audiences. There’s also in-fighting because of ego clashes between David and Nigel. Feuds between a band’s lead singer and guitarist have happened so many times to famous bands, it’s become a cliché at this point. The movie also pokes fun at other clichés in the music industry, such as over-the-top machismo in heavy metal; embarrassing on-stage mishaps; smarmy hangers-on; incompetent handlers; a meddling girlfriend who thinks she’s almost a member of the band; and sparsely attended gigs in weird places. In the movie, Reiner plays fictional director Marty DiBergi, who is chronicling the Spinal Tap tour for a documentary.
When “This Is Spinal Tap” was first released, it was so convincing, that some audience members thought that Spinal Tap was a real band, and some real-life rock bands were offended, because they thought that the movie was making fun of their real-life experiences. McKean, Guest and Shearer can sing, play musical instruments and write songs in real life, and they’ve occasionally released albums and toured as Spinal Tap over the years. At the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, in celebration of the 35th anniversary of “This Is Spinal Tap,” a rare reunion took place with Reiner, McKean, Guest and Shearer, who gathered at New York City’s Beacon Theatre for a conversation and Q&A, before the Spinal Tap trio did an acoustic performance. (Elvis Costello made a surprise guest appearance during the song “Gimme Some Money.”) Here is what the “Spinal Tap” team said during the conversation and Q&A, which was moderated by Reiner.
Guest: I hadn’t seen [“This Is Spinal Tap”] in a while. It’s interesting to see yourself younger. What do you think?
McKean: [He says to the audience] Your reactions were like concert reactions, which were great. You’d see a scene beginning, and it was like hearing the beginning of “Free Bird.”
Shearer: I have to say, I was taken back in a time machine when I saw the scene with Paul Shaffer [who portrayed record promoter Artie Fufkin, who asks the band to “kick his ass” when there’s a low turnout for a Spinal Tap meet-and-greet at a music store]. It brought me back to a moment Michael and I and an ex-partner were in a comedy group called the Credibility Gap. We were in Arizona doing a gig, and everything that could be fucked up about our technical set-up was.
The representative from Warner Bros Records—a guy named Lou Dennis—came backstage, and we were furious. This was a record merchandising convention, and this was a chance for people in the business to become acquainted with an act they didn’t care about. Lou Dennis, before we could say one word to vent our anger, said, “Guys, kick my ass!” He became known as Lou “Kick My Ass” Dennis for years afterward. We put that in the movie, and for years afterwards, he would say, “I’m the guy in ‘Spinal Tap!’”
McKean: The other problem was that conventioneers started drinking at about 9:30 in the morning. And this was more like 9 p.m. when we went on. It got worse. Tucson, Arizona.
Reiner: It’s crazy, 35 years. It’s insane when you think about it. They put us in the National Film Registry and the Smithsonian. It was so crazy. The first time we screened the film at a screening in Dallas, people were coming up to us and saying, “Why would you make a movie about a band that’s no one’s ever heard of and one that’s so bad?”
McKean: Some of the cards that we got from the audiences from test screenings were amazing. In answer to the question, “What did you like about this film?,” one woman wrote, “DNA.” “How would you describe this film?” And we figured out that “DNA” meant “Does Not Apply.”
Guest: Michael and I were in Dallas to get some popcorn, and there were two young women who came out in the middle of the movie, and one of them said to the other one, “These guys are so stupid!”
McKean: Well, they were right.
Guest: And one of the cards said, “What did you like about it?” And the person who wrote it said, “It’s in color.”
McKean: It’s not a good jumping-off point.
Reiner: I’d forget that Dana Carvey is in [the movie]. There’s Billy Crystal, Fran Drescher, Fred Willard. Sir Denis Eton-Hogg, played by Patrick Macnee. The whole film is improvised, except for that one speech by Patrick Macnee said about, “Tap into America.” He said, “I don’t improvise,” so we sat down and wrote it. It’s the only written thing in the whole movie.
We had Peter Smokler was the DP [ director of photography] on the film. We hired him because he shot lots of rock’n’roll documentaries. We thought he would be the perfect guy. He was actually at Altamont, with the very famous Rolling Stones concert with the Hell’s Angels, a very said time. And we were going through this, and he kept saying to me “I don’t understand what’s funny about this. This is exactly what they do.”
Shearer: This was probably a trait that served Peter well—not seeing what was funny about what we were shooting—because before he came on our project, he had shot another documentary called “This Time, It’s for the Championship.” There was a gentleman in the 1970s named Werner Erhard, who ran an organization called Est. And everybody’s agent went to Est.
And with all the money that his customers had given him, Werner Erhard decided to become a championship car racer and commissioned a documentary about it. So it would’ve been a bad idea for Peter to have said [about “This Is Spinal Tap”], “You know what? This is the funniest shit I’ve ever seen.”
Reiner: I never heard that story. There was a life to the band. They had their own life and their own history. We spent a lot of time talking about the characters. Everybody had their own frame of reference. And so, there was an organic creation.
We had some people come in to audition. John Densmore, the drummer for the Doors, auditioned. He was great, but he’s in the Doors. It’s not this alternative world that we created. Paul Stanley from Kiss came in.
Guest: Nicky Hopkins, a great keyboard player.
Reiner: If you look carefully in the “(Listen to the) Flower People” [music video], you’ll see Russ Kunkel, who was a great drummer who played for Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne and James Taylor. And Danny Kortchmar was in “Gimme Some Money.”
McKean: And Ed Begley Jr. was the drummer [in an early lineup of Spinal Tap, in the “Gimme Some Money” clip].
At this point, questions were taken from the audience.
Was the band Spinal Tap based on Iron Maiden?
Guest: It was never based on any particular band. The rhythm of the name Spinal Tap was like Uriah Heep or others with that rhythm. We picked and chose from various places.
Reiner: Life and art kept mirroring each other. That scene backstage where [Nigel Tufnel] is trying to get the sandwich to fit on the bread—that was taken from an article in Rolling Stone called “The Endless Party,” about Van Halen, and how they wanted all the brown M&Ms removed from backstage.
The keyboard player we had—a guy named John Sinclair—was in a 20-minute demo version of the film. And when we were ready to shoot the film, he got a job with Uriah Heep, and he figured, “This is a real band. I’m not going to go with these [Spinal Tap] schmucks. I’m going to get real money.” And when he came back from the Uriah Heep tour, he tells us how they got booked into an Army base. [In the movie, Spinal Tap performs at an Army base to a bewildered, straightlaced audience.]
Shearer: And just before we started shooting, I had the opportunity to be in England. I don’t even know how I wrangled this, but I got to go on the road with this mid-level band that most Americans never heard of, nor had I at the time, this English heartthrob band called Saxon. I picked up little details, like the bass player figured that that they were playing in E and A on all the songs, so he could play basically open strings, and he never had to finger it.
Reiner: There was life imitating art, back and forth. My favorite thing was we had this idea for Stonehenge. Black Sabbath decided they were going to tour with a Stonehenge theme. The movie came out about a week after they went on tour, and they were furious with us. They thought we stole the idea. It takes more than a week to make a film and distribute it.
Why was the cucumber wrapped in tinfoil? [In one of the movie’s most famous scenes, Derek Smalls sets off a metal detector at an airport checkpoint, and to his embarrassment, an airport security employee discovers that it’s because Derek has a phallic-shaped vegetable, wrapped in tinfoil, stuffed in his trousers.]
Shearer: The real answer is—and someone might check this after the show to see if I’m right—if you slip a cucumber, or as I did [in the movie], a zucchini, in your trousers, and you get up on stage, and sweat for two hours, you’ll be glad it’s wrapped in tinfoil.
Since the members of Spinal Tap are American in real life, how did you get those English accents down so well?
Reiner: Chris’ father was British.
McKean: We spent a lot of time echoing what Chris was like, because he was on the money all the time.
Reiner: Chris’ father was in the House of Lords, and when he passed away, [the title] was handed down to Chris. Chris became a member of the House of Lords. Did you pass any significant legislation?
Guest: I was the one who said you didn’t have to wrap anything in tinfoil. It didn’t go anywhere.
Reiner: Why did they kick you out, by the way?
Guest: I’ll tell you later.
What was with scene where the band members have cold sores?
Reiner: That was the remnant of a joke that took about a half-an-hour of film to set up. At one time, the opening act was a punk band called The Dose, which was fronted by Cherie Currie, who was in The Runaways. And at one point, she is with Nigel, and they’re having a little fling, and in the next scene, you see that Nigel’s got a little herpes sore. And then, she’s hanging out with David, and then he has a herpes sore. And then she’s with Derek, and then Derek has a herpes sore.
And there’s a scene with the five band members sitting around, thinking about dropping The Dose from the tour. There are four guys with herpes sores, and the drummer doesn’t have a herpes sore, and he’s saying, “Why don’t we keep them? I like them!” That was the whole set-up and we ended up with two guys with herpes sores [in the final cut].
What was your favorite scene that didn’t get in the final cut of the movie?
Shearer: Bruno Kirby singing. It’s on the DVD extras. He’s at a party with us. It’s late in the evening. Weed and other things have been ingested. And he’s stripped down to his skivvies, and singing Frank Sinatra into what he thinks is a microphone, but it’s actually a slice of pizza.
McKean: And then he goes out like a light. Oh man, it was so good. I understand why they cut it. There was a touring company of “The Wiz,” and we shot a scene where there were two extremely flamboyant black dancers. And they just give us the eye, and our reactions got a little big, I think, so we cut that. [That scene] made me laugh.
Reiner: The first cut [of “This Is Spinal Tap”] was about seven hours. There were about three hours of interview footage. It was like making a documentary. It was like writing a movie with the pieces of film.
Here is the set list from the Spinal Tap 35th anniversary reunion:
(Listen to the) Flower People
Rainy Day Sun
All the Way Home
Gimme Some Money (with Elvis Costello)