A Mockumentary Like No Other
In 1984, a film unlike any before it was released to the public. It was called This is Spinal Tap, and although many people did not know what to make of the movie at first, it went on to become a critically-acclaimed cult classic and is one of the most iconic and beloved films of modern times. Roger Ebert called the movie “one of the funniest, most intelligent, most original films of the year,” and Spinal Tap was later chosen for preservation in the esteemed United States National Film Registry.
Die-hard Spinal Tap fans and newbies alike will enjoy these facts and trivia about the groundbreaking film and the people who introduced the “mockumentary” (mock-documentary) genre to the mainstream.
A Real Look at a Rock Band?
This is Spinal Tap follows an aging rock band portrayed by comedic actors Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer as they attempt a comeback album and tour despite a fading fanbase and a record company that no longer views them as a top priority. At the time of its release, an incredible amount of viewers believed that This is Spinal Tap was a legitimate documentary about a real band. In a 2010 interview with Newsweek, director Rob Reiner admitted that after the movie was released, “Everyone said, ‘Why would you make a movie about a band that no one has heard of?’ The reason it did go over everybody’s head was it was very close to the bone.”
They Fooled the Prince of Darkness
To say that the humor in the This is Spinal Tap was close to the bone might be an understatement. In fact, one of those duped audience members was the godfather of heavy metal himself, Ozzy Osbourne. The Black Sabbath frontman claimed that he couldn’t understand why everyone else in the theater was laughing at a documentary. Others famous musicians who were rumored to be confused by Spinal Tap were guitar virtuoso Eddie Van Halen and all of the members of the English rock band Foghat. The Edge, U2’s guitarist, once said “I didn’t laugh, I wept. It was so close to the truth.”
Sorry, Not A Fan
Don’t count Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler as a fan of This is Spinal Tap – in fact, he’s been one of the film’s most vocal detractors. The problem, according to Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry, is that the rockumentary hit very close to home for Tyler, who could intimately relate with many of the scenarios spoofed in the movie. In an interview about watching Spinal Tap with Tyler, Perry (who loved the movie) said “[Steven] was squirming and squirming, and he did not laugh the whole time. It was like he took the band’s side on everything. It was like he did not – he didn’t get it. He got indignant. And it was like, I couldn’t believe it. So, my wife and I were cracking up – and we’re watching Steven.”
Tyler even admitted in a Library of Congress recording how he feels about the film: “That movie… bummed me out, because I thought, ‘How dare they? That’s all real, and they’re mocking it.'”
It’s no wonder there was so much paranoia and confusion among some in the music business when This is Spinal Tap was released. It turns out that there were some key musicians and figures who heavily influenced the characters and situations in the movie. Spinal Tap’s stars have been asked many times over the years which band(s) they based their spoof on, and by now they’ve released a number of names.
One of the bands cited was The Troggs (famous for their garage band hit, “Wild Thing”) because of a pointless blow-out argument they once had that was recorded live in the studio. The film makers claim that this audio was the inspiration for the epic recording studio fight scene in Spinal Tap. None of these recordings are SFW, but they’re worth looking up to compare the Troggs and the Tap versions.
More Spinal Tap influences coming up later…
A Massive Lawsuit
In 2016, This is Spinal Tap co-star Harry Shearer filed a $125 million lawsuit against the company that owns the film, Vivendi, which is the parent company of Universal Music and StudioCanal. Vivendi obtained the rights to the film through StudioCanal in 1989. In the suit, Shearer claimed that the company failed to pay millions of dollars owed to the movie’s stars. The shocking complaint alleges that between the time Vivendi acquired the film and 2006, it reported a measly $98 in total income from soundtrack music sales.
In February 2017, Shearer was joined by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and director/narrator Rob Reiner in the suit. As a group, they decided to boost the amount sought to $400 million. Reiner declared, “Such anti-competitive practices need to be exposed. I am hoping this lawsuit goes to 11,” a reference to one of the film’s most recognizable scenes.
Up To Eleven
IIn one much-quoted Spinal Tap scene in which Nigel proudly declares that one of his amplifier’s volume knobs “goes up to 11” instead of the standard maximum ten. “It’s one louder, isn’t it? 11 is one louder than 10,” he explains to Marty DiBergi, played by Rob Reiner, who’s expressed confusion at the unusual numbering.
In honor of this iconic scene, 11/11/11 was declared “Nigel Tufnel” day. According to a “Tufnel Day” Facebook page, more than 40 celebrations were held worldwide on that day. One of these, in San Diego, involved a Spinal Tap cover band playing 11 of their songs, beginning at 11:11, at a venue called Bar Eleven. The band’s name? Twelve.
In another iconic Spinal Tap scene, the band is getting ready to perform in a Cleveland arena when they get lost in the maze of corridors backstage. The band makes one wrong turn after another as their eager audience chants and claps, expecting to see Nigel, Derek, and David appear any minute.
The scenario has apparently happened to lots of famous musicians in real life, but the particular one that inspired Christopher Guest to write the scene was none other than Tom Petty. In an interview, Guest said, “We saw a tape of Tom Petty playing somewhere in Germany, where he’s walking backstage and a door’s opened and he ends up on an indoor tennis court and there’s just this moment of stunned, you know, ‘Where am I?'”
Michael McKean as David St. Hubbins
David St. Hubbins, dimwitted and sporting an over-the-top blonde rock and roll hairstyle, is the rhythm guitarist and lead singer for Spinal Tap. Played by comedic actor Michael McKean, St. Hubbins’ role in the film is completely improvised. According to the Spinal Tap storyline, St. Hubbins grew up next door to future bandmate Nigel Tufnel and the two began playing music together when they were aged 7 and 8. St. Hubbins claims that his family name refers to the patron saint of quality footwear. He also brags during the movie that “I believe virtually everything I read, and I think that is what makes me more of a selective human than someone who doesn’t believe anything.”
Michael McKean Today
Michael Mckean got his acting start as “Lenny” in the popular television series Laverne and Shirley, and has collaborated with Christopher Guest frequently on Guests’ films since This is Spinal Tap debuted. The two have starred together in other films, such as Best In Show, A Mighty Wind, Spinal Tap: Back from the Dead, and For Your Consideration. McKean has also performed on Broadway and had a role on AMC’s Better Call Saul.
Trivia: McKean was one of the oldest cast members to join SNL (46 at the time) until Leslie Jones joined the cast in 2014 (she was 47). He was on the show from 1994-1995. He also won the Celebrity Jeopardy! Tournament in 2010, beating Jane Curtin and Cheech Marin for the title
This is Spinal Tap provided an early venue for many unknown and up-and-coming actors. Fran Drescher had already had some small but successful roles in films like Saturday Night Fever, Stranger in Our House, and American Hot Wax and later became a household name in 1993with her own sitcom The Nanny. But one of her most memorable roles before striking it big was that of the band’s irrepressible publicist Bobbi Flekman. One of her big scenes in the film takes place at an industry meet-and-greet, where she lectures the band on their over-the-top sexist album cover idea.
Fun fact: Drescher made an appearance as Bobbi Flekman on her show The Nanny several years after Spinal Tap.
Harry Shearer as Derek Smalls
Derek Smalls was the glue that held Spinal Tap together. Smalls, the group’s bassist, says in the film that St. Hubbins and Tufnel are “distinct types of visionaries … like fire and ice,” and that his own role was to stay “in the middle of that, kind of like lukewarm water.”
Many believe that Smalls’ character was based off Lemmy from Motörhead, who shared a similar appearance and style.
One of Smalls’ fan-favorite quotes is “That’s not to say I haven’t had my visionary moments. I’ve taken acid seventy… five, seventy-six times.” Perhaps that’s where he came up with the concept for “Jazz Odyssey.”
Harry Shearer has been a cast member on Saturday Night Live twice, first during the 1979-1980 season and later in 1984-1985. He’s been an integral part of the long-running animated series The Simpsons, where he voices many key characters. He’s also appeared in many films and has written three books. Shearer was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2008.
On a personal level, Shearer feels passionately about the levee failure that led to the massive disaster when Hurricane Katrina pummeled New Orleans in 2005. Five years after the tragedy Shearer directed a documentary called The Big Uneasy, in which he blames the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the devastating loss of life and property that occurred.
Christopher Guest as Nigel Tufnel
Spinal Tap’s lead guitarist is Nigel Tufnel, played perfectly by comedic genius Christopher Guest. Tufnel is a gum-chomping space case with a slew of memorable one-liners and a flair for muscle shirts. An eccentric character with a variety of hobbies, Tufnel owns a mint condition vintage guitar (with the tag still on it) which no one is allowed to play, touch, talk about, or even look at.
Oft-cited quotes from Tufnel include “It’s like, how much more black could this be? and the answer is none. None more black” (about the cover of the band’s album) and “You can’t really dust for vomit.”
Christopher Guest Beyond “The Tap”
Writer, actor, and director (and British peer!) Christopher Guest began his entertainment career on Broadway. He had some small roles on television and in films before bursting onto the scene as Nigel Tufnel. The same year This is Spinal Tap was released, Guest was hired as for a year as a cast member on Saturday Night Live.
Since then, he’s been writing, directing, and acting in a variety of “improvised” films in a style similar to This is Spinal Tap’s. He frequently co-writes with fellow actor Eugene Levy. Together, the two outline characters and scenes, and the actors improvise the rest. Guest and Levy often work with the same group of actors, which includes fellow Spinal Tap alumni McKean and Shearer, along with other actors like Fred Willard and Parker Posey. Guest is married to actress Jamie Lee Curtis
Influence: Van Halen
Remember the backstage scene where Nigel throws a fit over the “miniature bread” provided by catering services? It turns out that scene was based on the diva-like backstage requests Van Halen was notorious for – most notably the demand that all brown M&M’s must be removed from their backstage areas.
In the Spinal Tap version, Tufnel is beside himself over the small brown bread provided in the deli tray. “Look… this, this miniature bread. It’s like… I’ve been working with this now for about half an hour. I can’t figure it out. Let’s say I want a bite, right, you’ve got this…” and he shows his manager the bread. After multiple attempts to fold the bread over some cold cuts, Tufnel eventually hurls the offending bite and exclaims “I want large bread!” in disgust.
There’s a really good reason for the M&M ban, it turns out. More about that later…
This is Spinal Tap director Rob Reiner appears in the film as Marty Di Bergi, the “documentary maker” asking all the questions. Di Bergi began his career as a filmmaker after taking a correspondence class on making movies, and claims to have turned down a job directing a Chuckwagon dog food commercial in order to film Spinal Tap.
Emmy award-winning actor Reiner went on to direct the iconic films Stand by Me, When Harry Met Sally, A Few Good Men, Misery, and The Princess Bride. He continues to act, and also participates in political activism for equal rights organizations.
Multi-Talented and Large-Hearted
The main actors in This is Spinal Tap (Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer) play all their own musical instruments. The three occasionally make appearances and play concerts as their Spinal Tap personas. They’ve played many benefit shows, including “Hear ‘n Aid,” which raised funds for Ethiopian refugees, and Live Earth, a climate change awareness event. For Hear ‘n Aid, the band wrote an original song titled “Warmer Than Hell.” Spinal Tap also appeared at an SOS/Live Earth concert, about which Rob Reiner (as filmmaker Marty DeBergi) quipped, “They’re not that environmentally conscious, but they’ve heard of global warming. Nigel thought it was just because he was wearing too much clothing – that if he just took his jacket off it would be cooler.”
Tony Hendra as Ian Faith
Actor Tony Hendra’s intense portrayal of the band’s manager “Ian Faith” was an all too real character to many in the music industry. Thought to be based on Led Zeppelin’s legendary manager, Peter Grant, who was known to occasionally do business armed with a baseball bat, Faith preferred the more appropriate English cricket-style bat for negotiations, famously saying: “Certainly, in the topsy-turvy world of heavy rock, having a good solid piece of wood in your hand is often useful.”
In response David St. Hubbins’ proposal that Faith co-manage the band with St. Hubbins’ girlfriend, Jeanine, Faith responds: “I’m not co-managing this band with anyone. Especially not someone who dresses like an Australian’s nightmare.”
June Chadwick as Jeanine Pettibone
A major turning point on the film occurs when St. Hubbins brings his manipulative girlfriend Jeanine Pettibone (played by June Chadwick) on tour with Spinal Tap. After the “Stonehenge” debacle, during which an 18 inch replica of a giant monolith is lowered on to the stage and knocked over by a little person, Jeanine assumes the role of band manager. The diplomatic Derek Smalls quips: “Things went wrong more smoothly once Jeanine took over.”
Chadwick went on to play another famous villain, “Lydia,” a lizard-like alien, on the original version of the hit television series V.
Spinal Tap was the Saturday Night Live musical guest on a 1984 episode hosted by Barry Bostwick. During their time preparing for the performance, show producer (at that point Dick Ebersol) invited them to join the cast as regular performers. Harry Shearer and Christopher Guest accepted, but didn’t stay long. This was Shearer’s second time as a cast member, and he later said that when he was offered the part during his Spinal Tap appearance, he “hadn’t realize[d] that guests were treated better than cast members.” Guest lasted one season.
A decade later, when Lorne Michaels was back in place as SNL’s producer, Michael McKean ended up joining the show for one year.
Lots of Early Appearances
Many now-famous actors had bit parts in This Is Spinal Tap. Faces you might have seen but not recognized at the time include Ed Begley Jr., Paul Benedict, Howard Hesseman, Dana Carvey and Billy Crystal (as mime waiters!), Bruno Kirby, Paul Shaffer, Gloria Gifford, Archie Hahn and Anjelica Huston.
Begley Jr played one of the many Spinal Tap drummers who died in bizarre, tragic accidents. His character, John “Stumpy” Pepys, died in a gardening mishap that authorities said was “best left unsolved.” Of his role in the film, Begley Jr told AV Club “it’s a very small part, but it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever been in.”
Lots of Dead Drummers
Apart from “Stumpy” Pepys, Spinal Tap lost a total of 18 drummers from 1964 to 1981. The band discusses these tragic deaths with a disarming nonchalance as they’re being interviewed by “documentarian” Marty Di Bergi.
Causes of death for these doomed drummers range from choking on vomit to a failed shark tank jump attempt to being eaten by a snake to spontaneous combustion. Several of the drummers’ fates are unknown, but most are presumed dead.
Other musicians associated with the band have also suffered tragic demises. Tambourinist Billy Murgatroyd overdosed on coffee creamer, and a vocalist by the name of Andy Sutcliffe flogged himself to death with his shoes.
A Prediction Of The Future?
Since the release of This is Spinal Tap, many bands have come to experience the same embarrassing and exasperating events that the film band suffered through. One instance: during U2’s 1997 tour to promote their recently-released album “Pop,” they chose to reveal themselves to their audience by emerging from a gigantic lemon.
Unfortunately, the lemon frequently malfunctioned. In one such occasion, guitarist The Edge was stuck in the prop fruit for an excruciating moment. In an interview with The Guardian, set designer Willie Williams recreated the scene: “So The Edge comes down from the stairs, and to start his guitar he has to kick a switch on his foot-pedal. Well, he ended up on his hands and knees, feeling around for the pedal. Later he said to me, ‘There I was at the debut, the premiere opening night, and this voice came into my head: I’m Derek Smalls.’”
The M&Ms Thing
Turns out that there’s a pretty good reason that Van Halen requested that all brown M&Ms be nixed from their backstage food spread. The group’s rider, or performance contract – a list of specific demands, included a line under the “provisions” category which stated “M&M’s (WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES)”. The same document indicated that the band could refuse to play if they found a single brown M&M in their green room. There’s a reason behind this seemingly picky demand.
In David Lee Roth’s autobiography, he explained. Van Halen was a much larger band/production than most of the cities they toured were used to. And there was no risk for error in the technical department: “[W]hether it was the girders couldn’t support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren’t big enough to move the gear through.” The M&M clause in the rider was an indication of how well the venue had handled Van Halen’s other requests. As Lee Roth outlined, “So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl … well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.”