This Is Spinal Tap

(1984) **** R
83 min. Embassy Pictures, MGM Distribution Company. Director: Rob Reiner. Cast: Rob Reiner, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, R. J. Parnell.

/content/films/3499/1.jpgIt's the rare comedy that not only becomes an indelible part of the American consciousness, but also deserves the honor. This is Spinal Tap is among those films (it comes it at #29 on AFI's "100 Years…100 Laughs" list and ranks #1 on Entertainment Weekly's list of "Top 50 Cult Films of All-Time"). The story of an embarrasingly inept heavy-metal band called Spinal Tap, Rob Reiner's film set the mockumentary standard that has come to define much of modern screen comedy.

Star Christopher Guest would go on to direct an acclaimed series of mockumentary films (including the folk-music parody A Mighty Wind, which reunited him with co-stars Michael McKean and Harry Shearer as a different band). Yet more surprising is that This Is Spinal Tap turned a fake band into a real band of sorts, as Guest, McKean, and Shearer have enjoyed a second career appearing, recording, and touring as Spinal Tap over the years. It's undeniable evidence of the level of commitment that makes This Is Spinal Tap an enduring comedy classic and not just a disposable, tossed-off lark.

Reiner plays documentarian Marti DiBergi, who seems unable to believe the movie he's stumbled onto. Introducing his film, DiBergi claims Spinal Tap has "earned a distinguished place in rock history as one of England's loudest bands." No doubt inspired by Eric Idles 1978 TV mock-rockumentary The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash, co-writers Guest, McKean, Reiner & Shearer devise a complete (and completely absurd) history of the band, which has had 37 members and sixteen albums, including the new disc "Smell the Glove," which occasions the U.S. tour the film "documents." Like The Rutles, This Is Spinal Tap allows for comedy involving British rockers and extensive parody of actual bands, including The Beatles. In the '60s, Spinal Tap was a hippie band (with the hit song "(Listen to) The Flower People"); a black-and-white Beatles-style news conference peppered with rapid-fire witticisms hit the cutting room floor, but a hilarious variation on The White Album remains part of the film.

The dimwitted core trio of the band is lead guitarist David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), and bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer). They have a history of unfortunate and misfortunate drummers (the first of which is played by Ed Begley Jr.), a tenacious but stupid manager named Ian Faith (Tony Hendra), and a penchant for ridiculous stage theatrics. This volatile mix results at one point in a disastrous attempt at an epic stage effect to accompany their legendary song "Stonehenge." Fran Drescher pops up as Bobbi Flekman (Fran Drescher) from the band's label, Polymer Records, and Fred Willard, Bruno Kirby, Anjelica Huston, Billy Crystal, Dana Carvey, Patrick Macnee, Howard Hesseman, and Paul Shaffer also appear in funny cameos.

/content/films/3499/2.jpgThe movie is mostly a string of funny bits and improvised interview sessions in the course of the tour, but some nominal drama comes when the band climactically breaks up over the intrusions of David's new girlfriend Jeannine (June Chadwick), Spinal Tap's Yoko. Despite the Beatles allusions, Spinal Tap is famous for nailing the feeble self-defensiveness of the incompetent, and the shallowness and unearned egomania of arena rockers. The special stupidity of the heavy metal scene gets a particular thrashing in a series of hilarious original songs filled with sexual innuendo and pretentious fantasy, "Hell Hole," "Heavy Duty," "Sex Farm," and the immortal "Big Bottom" (Big bottom/Big bottom/Talk about mud flaps/My gal's got 'em./Big bottom/Drive me out of my mind./How can I leave this behind?").

"It's such a fine line between stupid and clever," David St. Hubbins muses, but This Is Spinal Tap walks it with ease. An exquisite parody and a sly satire, it's 83 minutes of comedy bliss.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 2

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0

Street date: 7/14/2009

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Given my previous experience with This is Spinal Tap's 16mm source, I was frankly surprised by how good it can look. MGM has done a bang-up job with this A/V transfer, which retains the film's original appearance and, without going overboard with digital tinkering, delivers exceptional detail. Grain is well moderated, and digital artifacting and haloing are kept to a happy minimum. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is evern better, maximizing every nuance of the source material and presenting the musical sequences with the power they deserve.

Long ago, This is Spinal Tap got a Criterion DVD that's now rare and out-of-print. Those who own it should hang on to it, as it still has some exclusive extras. That said, MGM's special edition package remains very impressive. First up is an amusing, improvised in-character Audio Commentary by Spinal Tap, who grind axes about the hatchet job of "Marty DiBergi."

"Catching Up With Marty DiBergi" (5:01, SD) is a mildly amusing in-character interview with director Rob Reiner reprising his onscreen role.

Fourteen "Rare Outtakes" (1:07:51, SD) are deleted scenes amounting to enough material to almost fill a second feature; these are well worth checking out.

Vintage "Tap" Materials include a "Flower People Press Conference" (1:49, SD), which is actually another deleted scene, and "Spinal Tap Appearance on The Joe Franklin Show" (2:01, SD), an all-too-short tease of what was obviously a longer appearance (the video quality is also terrible, but at least it's here).

Music Videos include "Gimme Some Money" (2:19, SD), "(Listen to the) Flower People" (3:01, SD), "Hell Hole" (3:13, SD), and "Big Bottom" (3:48, SD).

Promotional Materials include "Heavy Metal Memories" (1:37, SD), a faux greatest-hits advertisement; "Cheese Rolling Commercial" (1:43, SD), a hilarious non-trailer for the film; "TV Spot #1: Offensive" (:30), "TV Spot #2: Reviews" (:30), and "TV Spot #3: Amplifier" (:30).

Commercials offers three sell-out spots for a food product: "Rock and Rolls #1" (:15, SD), "Rock and Rolls #2" (:15, SD), and "Rock and Rolls #3" (:15, SD). Though they're not funny, I'm glad they're here for completeness' sake.

A Bonus DVD includes two brand-new extras: "'Stonehenge' Performance at the 2007 Live Earth Concert" (6:55, SD), in which Ricky Gervais introduces Marty DiBergi, who introduces Spinal Tap, and a funny multi-part "National Geographic Stonehenge Interview with Nigel Tufnel" (8:15, SD), which finds Guest interviewed by frequent collaborator Jim Piddock.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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