Turn up your volume knobs to the maximum and more as the Spinal Tap legend celebrates its quarter century, with a three disc set that has enough extras to keep the eardrums thrumming till Christmas. Roger Keen reviews.
History has not been kind to the prog/glam/heavy metal rock scene of the 70s, tending to relegate the significance of the music whilst emphasising the pretentiousness of its protagonists. Like spoilt Renaissance princelings they overindulged in every area—not only in sex, drugs and bad behaviour but also in the somehow greater transgression of taking themselves far too seriously. It is this rich satirical vein that, as early as 1984, This Is Spinal Tap mined so successfully, somehow getting everything right in its approach, ticking all the boxes and practically inventing a new genre: the mockumentary, which conjures up a version of that scene that is so strong and seductive that it became a yardstick against which the reality is measured . Twenty-five years on Optimum have released this extensive three disc package, which includes a re-mastered feature, a new documentary and several other snippets, together with all the familiar extras from the previous double disc set, which collectively serve to re-establish the movie’s edginess in the post-The Office, post-Borat age.
This Is Spinal Tap has always been a film to watch and re-watch endlessly, an assemblage of good bits whose humour doesn’t diminish with repetition. The passage of twenty-five years has served to clarify more than ever why it works so well. Primarily there’s the sharpness of the observation, together with the sound choice of making the band British and having them tour America as the basis for the documentary. The American take on Britishness often tends towards stereotyping and caricature, but here the portrayal of rock musicians of a certain era is loaded with subtle accuracy, from the droll choice of names—David St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel—to the bordering-on-camp posturing and the foppish accents, which sound so authentic in the interview scenes where the band members make their intellectually-challenged grasps for the high ground of artistic seriousness. Better still is the voyage of discovery into how already bloated egos can become inflated to bursting point under the constant Heisenbergian gaze of the documentary makers’ camera, something not lost on Ricky Gervais, one of the film’s many devoted celebrity fans.
All this was achieved by means of collaboration on the writing front between director Rob Reiner and lead actors Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, together with improvisation in the filming, with a much larger body of material cut down to the finished 79 minutes. The vicissitudes of the band’s American tour are well-known to fans of the film, but will only serve as spoilers to others, so I won’t discuss them in detail; but somehow it’s the minor and more nuanced incidents that still bring on the greatest smiles—the chronicling of the bizarre deaths of former drummers, the tantrums over the dimensions of sandwiches, getting lost in a maze backstage corridors, the lyrics of ‘Big Bottom’, the old album covers, reviews and TV clips of the band in former incarnations—everyone will have his or her own list of favourites. It’s reported that many viewers of the film have thought Spinal Tap to be a real rock band, and well they might, as the mimicry is so close to home that it’s almost too true to be parody. Prefiguring a media climate where metafilmic techniques have become a new staple of comedy and real rockers, such as Ozzy Osbourne, have forged second careers by becoming parodies of themselves, This Is Spinal Tap can only continue to grow in stature as it finds new audiences for whom mullets and tight satin trousers are a thing of their grandfathers’ era.
The three discs come with menus in the six subtitle languages, plus menu commentary from the band. Considering that the original was 16mm, the re-mastered feature looks good, with no discernable flaws or artefacts; and any impressions of grain and softness are in keeping with the documentary look, so this is a noticeable improvement on previous transfers. The audio comes in English stereo and 5.1, plus a French dubbed stereo version (with the exception of the songs themselves). The soundtrack is crisp and punchy, with the stage performances especially resonant, as you’d expect from a version billing itself as ‘Up to 11’.
There is also a blu-ray version and a specially packaged Limited Marshall Amp Edition, which includes the blu-ray, the three DVD discs and the original soundtrack.
The main new extra is a 43 minute anniversary documentary featuring talking heads of aficionados of the film, many of them British comedy performers such as Rob Brydon, Martin Freeman, Justin Lee Collins, Eddie Izzard and Ricky Gervais, plus the members of heavy metal band Anvil. Naturally enough, what they say comes over as a continuous eulogy, with a fair bit of repetition, but it makes one think about how the film has influenced the comedy scene, and what a debt shows such as The Office owe to it—not only in the method but also in the deadpan style.
The new material featuring the band themselves works well, as they are really older, with Nigel looking lived-in and careworn, Derek not much changed but more haggard and greyer in some sections, and David a tad plumper and statesmanlike in a Rick Wakemanesque kind of way. The 1992 The Return of Spinal Tap Royal Albert Hall concert has been fashioned into a film in its own right, complete with interviews and where-are-they now vignettes of the band members—Derek sanitises phones and Nigel invents the folding wine glass. There’s footage of the 2007 Live Earth concert, with yet another variation on the Stonehenge cock-up; a series of featurettes promoting the DVD, continuing the running gag that director Marti DiBergi (Reiner) did a ‘hatchet job’ on the band with the film; and a series of National Geographic interviews with Nigel, where he reaches new levels of brainlessness with his unconventional theories on the origins of Stonehenge. Also new is ‘Sprinkle some ****in Fairy Dust On It’, an interview with Reg Presley of The Troggs where he speculates about a recording of his band arguing being a source for the film. For dedicated fans this new stuff is priceless, continuing the Spinal Tap legend in character, with fun contributions from many real musicians, including Sting and Mick Fleetwood—as the latest drummer to take the ill-fated hot seat.
The extras from the previous two disc special edition are included, with the superbly funny commentary by the band members adding a unique dimension, in that it forms an internal rather than external additional layer, bolstering further the illusion that Spinal Tap are ‘real’. Over an hour of ‘Outtakes’, using what look like original 4:3 16mm rushes prints, variously graded with occasional dirt and chinagraph marks, are loosely edited to form a vérité-style alternative version of the movie. Some scenes are extensions of those within the main film, such as the opening night party and the fisticuffs between bossy girlfriend Jeanine and manager Ian over the Stonehenge debacle. Other scenes don’t appear in the film, such as an ongoing band interview in a communal hot tub, a visit by David’s son and an appearance by a replacement lead guitarist who steals the show. There’s also a series of fun gags based around groupies and herpes sores, which lower the tone most satisfyingly.
Other promotional-type material includes four band videos: full versions of the 1960s ‘Gimme Some Money’ and ‘Listen To The Flower People’, plus an excellent more conceptual Queen-style take of ‘Hell Hole’ and a concert version of ‘Big Bottom’. A new ‘Bitch School’ video appears in the context of a creative meeting, also highly conceptual and with raised production values, where the guys visit an all-girls school ruled over by a Madonna-style dominatrix—unmissable!
There’s also several trailers, TV spots, a ‘Flower Power Press Conference’ and ‘Heavy Metal Memories’, an advertisement for an album of the band’s greatest hits, done in classic over-egged style. Overall a terrific ensemble of extras, in that they’ve developed organically alongside the Spinal Tap legend and really complement the film, furthering the humour on the same high footing. The package almost deserves a special one-off score of 11… or at least 10 but made louder…
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum