It was September 17, 2000, and in the letters to the editor of the New York Times, Tom Jackman of Oakton, Virginia, was mad. “John Leland’s suggestion that moviegoing audiences didn’t ‘get’ This Is Spinal Tap in 1984, thus necessitating its re-release, is ludicrous,” he wrote, referencing the paper’s recent feature story, “The Heavy Metal Joke Not Everyone Got” by John Leland. Jackman continued: “Certainly the sold-out audience I watched it with in the West Village laughed almost continuously, and it played both there and in theaters around the country for months.”
To be sure, Leland’s retrospective piece, pegged to one of the film’s many special-edition home-video releases, is a touch puzzling. It insists that the film’s original audiences saw the film “in the towering shadow” of the beloved Rolling Stones, and therefore “could not recognize the movie’s knowing wink” to the pretensions of rock music. Leland’s is a pop-culture story we never tire of telling ourselves; we love to reflect on how a brilliant album or film was just too far ahead of its time, that the plebes back then didn’t recognize the true genius that we, the contemporary audience, take as gospel.
The truth is often more complicated, and that’s the case with This Is Spinal Tap, which celebrated its 35th anniversary at the Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday night with a screening, full-cast reunion, and performance at the Beacon Theater. When John Leland wrote about the film for the Times in 2000, he conflated the reaction of the film’s test audiences with moviegoers at large. Make no mistake, some test audiences missed the wink. In a Q&A after Saturday’s Tribeca screening, Reiner recalled the confused responses of of a preview group in Dallas. “People would come up to us and say, ‘Why would you make a movie about a band that nobody ever heard of?’” Reiner laughed. “’And one that’s so bad?’”
“Good question!” added Christopher Guest.
But out in the wild, noted the New York Times just after Spinal Tap’s release, “the $2.2 million movie has received excellent reviews and is thriving at theaters in Boston, New York, Chicago and the west side of Los Angeles.” At that point, six weeks into its platform release, it had only grossed $1.3 million. “Nobody will get rich,” Aljean Harmetz predicted. Yet that wasn’t quite true; the film would gross twice its budget in that initial theatrical run, and prove more profitable thanks to three-plus decades of re-releases, ancillary products, and tours (the first of which was mounted later in 1984, the year the film released).
It’s quite a run for a film that began with an overheard conversation in a hotel lobby. In 1984, Guest told Newsweek he’d already been living with the character of Nigel Tufnel for about ten years, after watching in bemusement as a daft (and unnamed) British rocker attempted to check in to the Chateau Marmont. The musician’s manager attempted, unsuccessfully, to explain why the star’s luggage hadn’t magically arrived at his destination (he’d left his bags at the airport, of course). “This went on for a good 20 minutes,” Guest told Rolling Stone. Cut to 1979, when Shearer and Reiner were co-stars on The TV Show, a sketch comedy pilot that ABC buried as a one-time late-night special presentation. Guest wanted to get the rocker character “out of my system,” so he recruited two of the special’s co-stars, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, to fill out his imagined idea of the musician’s band, which they dubbed Spinal Tap. Reiner played Wolfman Jack in the sketch, which spoofed the late-night music program “The Midnight Special.”
The quartet had such a great time working together, and thought the characters were so promising, that a film adaptation seemed like the next logical step — especially for Reiner, who hadn’t yet directed a feature (he was still best known as Archie Bunker’s son-in-law on All in the Family). They would write it together, and Reiner would both direct and play the director depicted in the film, which they shot and cut as a rock mockumentary. To give it the off-hand authenticity of a real doc, they decided to only write the songs in advance; the script was merely an outline of the story and scenes that followed. The actors improvised most of their dialogue.
But the script’s improvisational nature meant the filmmaking crew couldn’t shop it around to fund-raise their budget. Instead, they made a 20-minute “demo,” introducing the characters, the sensibility, and the style of the movie. Reiner and producer Karen Murphy were “literally walking from one lot to the next, with a can of film under our arms,” he told Rolling Stone. “Columbia, MGM, Twentieth, Orion. We went everywhere. They just didn’t feel it had any appeal.” Reiner finally got lucky when he took a meeting at the smaller Embassy Pictures about directing his eventual sophomore effort The Sure Thing, screening the demo reel for an executive there. She bought the pitch on the spot. (It probably didn’t hurt that the company’s new owner was Norman Lear, a lifelong friend of Reiner’s father Carl, and producer of All in the Family.)
Though they didn’t have a conventional screenplay, Reiner, Guest, McKean, and Shearer labored over a complete history of their characters and the band (including a discography with titles like Silent But Deadly, The Sun Never Sweats, and Bent for the Rent). To properly replicate the fly-on-the-wall rock-doc style, Reiner hired cinematographer Peter Smokler, whose credits included Gimme Shelter, Jimi Plays Berkley, and the reality-TV groundbreaker An American Family. He would become the go-to guy for mockumentary, subsequently lensing The Larry Sanders Show, the first season of Parks & Recreation, and the pilot for the American version of The Office. He was the right guy for the job, according to Reiner. “He kept saying to me, ‘I don’t understand, what’s funny about this?’” the director told the Tribeca audience. “’This is exactly what they do!’”
The tight $2.2 million budget meant Reiner had to shoot the entirety of the film — including multiple concerts in multiple cities — over the course of five weeks in Los Angeles. The improvisation also meant they had to set aside more money for film stock than your average movie. “We shot each scene three or four times,” Reiner told the Times. “The first time, I’d just turn on the camera and see what happened. The second time, we added things or changed focus. The third time was to get variations, and the fourth time was for cutaway shots.”
“We knew we had something good,” Reiner said. “What we didn’t know was whether anyone else would like it.” The critics did. Newsweek’s David Ansen called it “a very special, very original hoot,” Variety deemed it “vastly amusing,” and the Times’ Janet Maslin described it as “a witty, mischievous satire.” And because show-biz satire was still relatively infrequent, the film’s fans felt like they were in on the joke, especially when the cast ingeniously chose to further blur the line between fact and fiction on the promotional trail. They appeared in character on the television talk show hosted by New York mainstay Joe Franklin, who took the band and their fame at face value. (“No one has suspected that a band they’ve never heard of but which has supposedly released 17 albums over the last 15 years is anything but what they appear to be,” reported the Village Voice’s Peter Occhiogrosso.) They placed a video for “Hell Hole” on MTV before the film’s release, without acknowledging the film or the actors behind the band, and ran late-night commercials not for the movie, but for the band’s fictional greatest-hits album.
The audiences who loved it, really loved it. Within two months of the films’ release, Spinal Tap played club dates on both costs (including a gig at CBGB, where the New York Post reported fans “lined up all the way down the block”) and were booked as musical guests on Saturday Night Live. In the years that followed, as the film’s audience grew thanks to cable airings and home video rentals, there would be reunion videos and tours, albums, books, a CD-ROM, and finally, that benchmark of true rock star status, a corporate sell-out. Its best lines have become catchphrases and its scenes have become shorthand for discussing the state of rock music.
And that didn’t take any time at all. “My favorite thing was, we had this idea with ‘Stonehenge,’” Reiner said Saturday. “And Black Sabbath decided they were touring with a Stonehenge theme — and the film came out literally a week after they started going on tour. And they were furious at us! They said, You stole it, you stole it! It takes a little bit more than a week to make a film, and cut it, and distribute it, but they were sure we’d stolen that idea from them.”
At the New York theater on Saturday, Reiner admitted that he hadn’t seen the movie in about 25 years. His verdict after all this time: “Still pretty good!” In the end, his best explanation for why the movie has held up over the decades is simple, and plucked straight from his own movie. “There is a fine line between stupid and clever,” he explained, “and hopefully, we hit it.”