Reviewed by
Chris Galloway

Title: This Is Spinal Tap: Criterion Collection (1984)
Studio Line: The Criterion Collection/Home Vision - Does for rock and roll what The Sound of Music did for hills.

Long considered a cult classic, This Is Spinal Tap has taken on new significance in the decade of the aging rocker, and dead-on satire secured it a place in history as one of the funniest films ever made. Tracing the steady demise of an aging English heavymetal band whose hits include "Sex Farm Woman" and "Big Bottom" -- This Is Spinal Tap records the group's in-fighting, humiliations, and bombastic creative sessions. Rob Reiner's directorial debut, the film was shot without a working script and largely improvised. This Is Spinal Tap never falters, even when walking the fine line between clever and stupid.

Director: Rob Reiner
Cast: Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Tony Hendra, Rob Reiner.
DVD: Widescreen 1.70:1; audio English Dolby Surround; subtitles none; double sided - single layered; 64 chapters; rated R; 82 min.; $39.95; street date 7/8/98; Out-of-Print.
Supplements: Audio Commentary by actors Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer
Audio Commentary by Rob Reiner, producer Karen Murphy, and editors Robert Leighton and Kent Beyda; Over one hour of Deleted Scenes; Industry and Theatrical Trailers; "Spinal Tap: The Final Tour" Demo Reel; Promotional shorts: "Heavy Metal Memories" and "(You Know Where You Stand In A) Hell Hole" Music Video.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C+/B-/A+

I remember when I first heard of Spinal Tap. I was probably around 10, and I had some friends that were heavy into the rock music of the 80's. We were sitting in school at lunch and someone brought up some music groups. Guns and Roses seemed to be everyone's favorite group, as I understood. Then someone brought up this group called Spinal Tap. This was the first time I had ever heard of them. But everyone agreed they sucked.

From that point on for quite a few years I actually believed that Spinal Tap was a real group. Even saw part of a documentary about them on TV. It didn't hold my attention, and really, I wasn't into that type of music. For many years there in the back of mind, Spinal Tap remained a real band. A very bad band.

Little did I know it was not a real band.

This is Spinal Tap was the documentary I had watched on TV about this group. I didn't realize (at a young age) that the movie was actually a mockumentary conceived by Rob Reiner and Saturday Night Live alumni, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer. It was set up by them to make fun of the heavy metal groups at the time and is actually quite an amusing, if not perfect movie. I actually avoided it, even after I discovered Spinal Tap was a mock band, more on the fact that mockumentaries never amused me. I had seen a Canadian film called Hard Core Logo and was not at all amused by it. I was actually bored by the film. But after listening to a friend of mine (another movie buff) talk about it, I decided to give it a try. Well, it took a very long time to find a copy but I found one for rent and I rented it.

The movie is about an English band that is trying to make a big comeback in an American tour. David St. Hubbins (McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Guest), Derek Smalls (Shearer) and a few unlucky drummers make up the band Spinal Tap. A documentary filmmaker named Marty DiBergi (Reiner) has decided to follow this group around on their tour, in hopes of showing the talent and feeling of this group.

Of course, all that happens is one horrible situation after another. Things like an album cover being completely rejected. On stage embarrassments like being trapped inside a prop, too small a prop being designed or picking up air traffic signals through their speakers, as well as being billed after a puppet show. One of them then has the humiliating experience of being caught with a cucumber down his pants. Nothing, absolutely nothing is going right for these guys.

The film has many funny segments in the first two thirds of the movie. It's constant pokes at Guns and Roses, the Rolling Stones and Van Halen and many more are quite witty. I especially like one scene where Nigel almost has a breakdown because the slices of bread on the snack trays are too small and he has to fold the meat to get it to fit on the bread. Another bit about an amp that goes up to 11 had me rolling on the floor. There are many other small segments that had me in hysterics. It's not until the last third that the movie's joke died on me and the film started to fall flat. The laughs stopped and I started shifting in my seat because there was nothing of interest on the screen for me anymore. It's around the military base gig that the movie started going down and started becoming predictable. Before, it was easy to predict that the group was going to go from screw up to screw up, but I could not predict what screw up was going to happen. This was a lot of fun. But in the last bit I could predict what was going to happen, and the whole drama of what the group would do with one group member gone was of little interest to me. As well, there is a sharp serious turn here and the movie never picks itself up really, but tries to at the very end when another drummer spontaneously combusts. To me, at this point, it was just a lame joke which I saw coming, especially in it's build up after the constant interviews about drummers in this group doing this (or choking on someone's vomit).

But I have to give everyone involved credit. A lot of people still believe this movie is real. Another friend of mine would later see the Criterion DVD in my collection of movies and just look at me with question on his face, asking me: "you like Spinal Tap!?" Then he would look like he was going to smack me across the face. Plus I know other people that think the band is real. And it's all because of Reiner and company.

I will say that Reiner does the movie brilliantly. It looks spontaneous. The constant motion of the camera achieves this; it never stays in one place and always appears to be just picking a spot to sit where something might happen (which always seems to). The actors also really help in the sense of reality; apparently a lot of it is improv, too. They never play their characters as goof balls. They play them seriously. Guest and McKean are especially good at this. They think of themselves as the greatest things on earth when really, they are quite horrible. It just never dawns on them and probably never will that they "suck". Shearer does play the sort of goof ball, but not in an annoying over the top way. He accidentally gets into goof ball situations. Cameos from Billy Crystal, Anjelica Houston and Paul Schaeffer are all terrific, especially Schaeffer's manic Fufkin character.

The movie has developed a cult following, which I'm not surprised at. While I don't think the film is all that it's been racked up to be, it is an original and amusing piece. The idea of a "false documentary" is very funny. Of all the mockumentaries I've seen it is probably the funniest and best one.

The DVD:

Criterion has also put out a nice DVD special edition for Spinal Tap. The film is shown in an aspect ratio of 1.70:1 on this double sided, single layered disc and, like a lot of Criterion's discs, is not enhanced for widescreen TV's. And I was very lost on how to rate the picture to be honest. The picture is extremely rough. I mean, we're talking grain, tears, hairs, streaks and a lot of soft spots. Paleness and poor black levels are also present. While I guess the picture itself is much sharper than most people would be used to, not much of a restoration has been done on the movie. But I have to ask myself, should it really be cleaned up? No, not really, otherwise the movie loses it's documentary feel. So while the transfer is crappy, it should look this way. I wanted to give the picture a high mark, but that may throw off people. I decided to just give it a simple average C+, because the image will never be confused for Gods And Monsters or Austin Powers but still preserves the film the way it should be because it should still have that documentary feel.

Criterion also included a pretty okay Dobly-I'm sorry--Dolby (oh that was just a bad joke, I know, but come on, you knew it was coming) Digital 2.0 track with the film. This was another area I was confused on how to grade. I mean, it is actually supposed to sound like crap! And it does for the most part. During documentary segments the front is all that is used and the sound is quite bad, but then that really is how a documentary usually is. There is a bit of panning between the front speakers but not too evident. It's quiet and it seems to pick up more background noise than what is the center of attention, like a documentary. I was wondering how to grade but I decided on a B-. This is not going to impress anyone about your sound system. But Criterion went the extra effort during the concert scenes. This is when all the speakers kick in and you get that feeling of actually being at one of their concerts (heaven forbid). And it's loud! I mean loud. And it's not even distorted. You can still make out the words to the songs and it's not harsh.

The movie I said was double sided and is actually Criterion's only double sided disc. The movie covers Side A, though, so no flipping during the movie. The supplements are on Side B, except for the two commentaries included. They of course run with the movie. The first commentary is by "The Band", Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer. This is the better of the two. This is actually a rare Criterion commentary. Why? Because the people are all recorded together and not separately, which makes for a good track. The cast reminisces back and has some interesting antic dotes and their surprise as to how serious some people took this movie. The second track is by members of the crew. These are separate recordings edited together. Rob Reiner appears on his own, as does producer Karen Murphy. Editors Robert Leighton and Kent Beyda seem to appear together (I'm not too sure to be honest). This is also a good one but not as fun as the first. I think the most interesting part of this is when the editors make the rare appearance, as they explain how they had to trim a 6-hour movie down to 82 minutes.

Side B includes a load of goodies!! This was previously released by Criterion on laserdisc and I honestly haven't seen it so I can't state whether everything is on here, but it looks like it should be. I think a supplemental section is complete when I can't think of another possible thing that could be included and I can't here. And they are all good extras as well, enhancing your appreciation of the film and giving some nice bonus stuff for fans. I think the most interesting bit is the demo reel. They couldn't figure out how to put on script what they wanted to make so they made a 20-minute demo reel to give an idea of the movie. What it is is the film cut down to 20 minutes and even cheaper. The picture is very rough as is the sound but I'm guessing it has been sitting in Reiner's basement since it was made. Still this is a thoughtful extra.

A lot of promotional stuff is included as well. There is a music video for "Hell Hole", one of their many bad songs and the video is just as bad. Which is the point. I don't know where this would have appeared, maybe on MTV but it would have added to making the band seem so real. Really, it's like so many other rock videos of the era that mediocre heavy metal buffs would have never noticed it was a spoof. There is also a false ad for "Heavy Metal Memories", a record that is supposed to be a collection of the Best of Spinal Tap. There are also two trailers. One is the theatrical trailer, which is hilarious. It has nothing to with the movie. It's false footage of a cheese rolling competition. This bit is performed by the cast and is one of the funniest little segments I've ever seen. I wish they actually somehow included this in the movie. There is also an "industry" trailer, which is something that is passed to theater owners and this one is very amusing as Rob Reiner whines and pleads to play his movie in theaters. It runs about 4 minutes and includes the cheese rolling video again.

The real good extra is the group of deleted scenes. And we're not talking a couple, we're talking over an hours worth of them. And they're all (give or take a few) great ones. They are not restored, most of them have audio but no video or vice versa, but it's a great extra. There are 32 of them in total. They can be played straight through or selected separately. My favorite would have to be the scene where Bruno Kirby gets stoned. Now that's funny.

This is a great DVD from Criterion. No, it's not Brazil but it is one of their better releases. Unfortunately it has been discontinued by Criterion. But it's still quite easy to find on the Internet. auctions and others have it. Unfortunately it can cost up to $100 or more. Is it worth it? Well, that's an iffy issue. A real fan of the film, yes! I think it would be. A collector may find it worthwhile. An average viewer though is an iffy spot. While the extras are very nice, you do have to have even the slightest appreciation of the film to even enjoy these. I don't think it's that great and while I was willing to pay the $27 American for it, I wouldn't pay $100. That would depend solely on the viewer.

The movie is an original and amusing idea but far from great, dying in the last third of the film. But this Criterion DVD is a great edition for the movie. Picture is not good but it keeps the feel of a documentary and the track is better than it should be. And the extras are definitely worthwhile and will keep you busy.

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