Rob Reiner’s hilarious directorial debut, This is Spinal Tap (1984), follows fictitious British heavy-metallers Spinal Tap as they embark on a disastrous American tour. The film takes the form of a pioneering mock-rock documentary offering a close-up portrayal of frontman David St Hubbins (Michael McKean), lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) and bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer), alongside an array of ill-fated drummers, groupies and long-suffering manager Ian Faith (Tony Hendra). It’s all overseen by director Marty DiBergi (Reiner). As the hapless band lurch from cancelled gig to botched album launch to catering mishap, there’s a sense that no matter how ridiculous things get, worse is yet to come.
Among the funniest and most quotable films ever made, Reiner’s classic features a host of indelible set-pieces – most famously a miniature Stonehenge stage set. It launched the careers of the central trio. Shearer became a mainstay of The Simpsons, McKean most recently turned up in Better Call Saul, and Guest went on to make the mock doc his own by directing and starring in the likes of Waiting for Guffman (1996), Best in Show (2000) and A Mighty Wind (2003).
Reiner himself became a master of first-class Hollywood cinema across the genres. The New York native followed This Is Spinal Tap with hits such as Stand by Me (1986), When Harry Met Sally (1989), Misery (1990) and A Few Good Men (1992).
Following the announcement of a much-belated This Is Spinal Tap sequel set for release in 2024 to mark the 40th anniversary of the first film, a new restoration of the original debuted at Cannes Film Festival in the Classics strand. On the afternoon ahead of its premiere, a jovial Reiner sat down with us at a Cannes beach bar to remember making the film.
How did you come up with the idea and develop it?
It came out of a very organic place. I produced a TV show in 1978 called The TV Show. It was a satire of different things on television, a guy sitting in his den flipping from one channel to the next. We had satire of telethons, commercials and sitcoms. We did a satire of a show that was on late-night television in America called Midnight Special – it was a rock’n’roll show. It started at midnight, and I played Wolfman Jack, who was a DJ, and I introduced Spinal Tap for the first time, England’s loudest band. They did a little three-minute thing called ‘Rock’n’Roll Nightmare’. It was like a music video and, while we were doing that, the guys started improvising in character.
They were all playing Brits, but Chris is the only one who comes by it naturally, because his dad was a Brit, and he was in the House of Lords, so he has his natural accent, but everybody sparked off him. I said, “Boy, we should do something with these characters.”
Harry and I had an idea to write a movie about a band on tour – backstage, the life of the roadie. Then this movie, Roadie (1980), came out, starring Meat Loaf. We said, “Okay, forget it. They did that.” Chris and Michael started improvising in those characters, and they did a little video on it, and we gravitated back towards each other, because we’d all worked together. We said, “Maybe there’s something in this about a tour.” It all grew out of a very natural place.
How much of it was actually improvised?
All of it. The entire film was improvised. The only speech that’s not improvised is Patrick Macnee – at one point, he says, “Tap into America,” when they’re launching the tour. He was not an improvisational actor, and he asked us if we could write a little speech for him. Everything else was improvised.
You must have had an idea or overall scenes: “We’ll have a scene, and it’s going to have this in it.”
Yeah. There were physical things that we knew, like the Stonehenge thing or the amp that went up to 11. We asked the prop guy, “Would you build these?” In terms of the dialogue and how we got to it, that was completely improvised.
To what extent is Marty DiBergi based on Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz (1978)?
A lot of it is. He had put himself in The Last Waltz, and I thought, “That’ll be the way I’ll do it.” When he first saw it, he was a little upset I was making fun of him, but now, over the years, he loves it. He’s come to love it.
I’m not sure if you can stake a claim for being the first ‘mock-doc’, but you certainly popularised it. How do you feel about the way it has become so popular?
It’s great. It’s almost like you created a new genre that didn’t exist. My friend, Albert Brooks, was the first guy to do a mock documentary [Real Life, 1979]. It was a takeoff of The Loud Family, which was a PBS show about an American family, and he did this satire of that. But we were the first ones to do a mock rock documentary. Then Chris Guest did a number of pictures for Castle Rock. All those were that same idea.
Where did the phrase “dresses like an Australian’s nightmare” come from?
We saw a thing where there were euphemisms for vomiting, for throwing up. Throwing a map was one. The Technicolor yawn, an Australian something or other, and we turned that into an Australian’s nightmare.
Do you have a favourite quote of your own from the film?
Yeah, my favourite is, “There’s a fine line between stupid and clever.” Because there is a fine line between stupid and clever.
What do you think of the film’s popularity with musicians? Do you think they see a lot of themselves in it?
They do, and I’ve been approached by so many different musicians over the years who say, “That happened to me,” or have a moment like that. Sting once told me, “‘I watched this movie many times. Every time I watch it, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.” Because they do see themselves in it.
Where do you think This Is Spinal Tap ranks in your filmography?
I don’t know, but it’s the first one so it got my career going. I’ve got to rank it way up there. But they’re all my children. Even the ones that are no good, even the black sheep.
What were Spinal Tap up to between the original film’s release in 1984 and the recent announcement of the forthcoming sequel?
Spinal Tap performed on tour, after the film came out. They did a couple of different tours and played in the Royal Albert Hall. There was Live Earth, which was about the environment and climate change and they asked Tap to play at Wembley Stadium. They had Ricky Gervais introduce me. I introduced the band as Marty, and they asked me to do a little film to promote it.
We came up with this idea of what they were doing right before they came back together to do that. I did a little film. Derek was at a rehab centre, because he was addicted to the internet. He couldn’t get off the internet. The weird thing is I conducted the interview with him on the internet, on Zoom.
Then Michael was working at a high colonic clinic. He was doing enemas and things, and he was managing some rap artists. Chris was working on a little farm for tiny miniature horses. I asked him, “What are you doing?” He says, “I hope someday to race them.” I said, “But you don’t understand, even if you get a jockey that’s small, he can’t fit on a horse like that.” He says, “Well, these horses were found in a small area of Peru, and we’re hoping to go back there and find little people that could fit on these horses.”
How much work have you done on the sequel so far?
Marty DiBergi, who did the original, said he wanted to do this when he heard that the band were going to be reunited. But I think we’re taking a chance, because here’s the thing: the guys in the band, they hated the first film. They thought it was a hatchet job. They didn’t like the way they were portrayed in the thing, so we’re taking a chance with Marty. Who knows what he’s going to do?
The restoration of This Is Spinal Tap screened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It will be back in cinemas for its 40th anniversary in 2024.
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