The Making of "This Is Spinal Tap" (1984) is Almost as Iconic as the Rockumentary Itself, Here's Why
Back in 1982, when American actors Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer first put on long-haired wigs and flamboyant costumes, and picked up their instruments to portray the fictional, British, heavy-metal band Spinal Tap for Rob Reiner’s directorial debut, they had no idea that they were breathing life into a collaboration that would, eventually, become very, very real. This Is Spinal Tap (1984) is not only one of the greatest mockumentaries of all time, it’s also the vehicle that launched Spinal Tap, an actual band that plays shows, releases records, and goes on tour.
It’s hard to write a movie where almost every line becomes iconic, and so they didn’t. After making several attempts at creating a script, the gang decided to go with a loose plot line and see where the talent of the cast would take it. As such, all of the actors helped “write” the film. The concept stemmed from watching actual rock 'n' roll documentaries that were released by popular bands around that time, like The Song Remains the Same (1976), The Last Waltz (1978), and All You Need Is Cash (1978) by The Rutles. It helped, of course, that they all had some experience with the music scene from which to draw tons of inspiration.
According to John Kenneth Muir’s 2004 book, Best in Show: The Films of Christopher Guest and Company:
"The group was particularly interested in crafting a rock 'n' roll movie that wasn’t just funny, but realistic and — most important — accurate. 'The initial impulse for that was our mutual shared frustration when we saw all of these rock 'n' roll movies, and they kept getting it wrong,' remembers Shearer. 'People were supposedly playing guitars with their fingers in impossible positions, given what we were hearing. Forty million people in this country have taken guitar lessons, so why would you insult the audience quite that gratuitously if you don’t have to?'”
The foursome had been developing This Is Spinal Tap for four years. Although the team had faith in their idea, convincing studio execs was’t easy. So, over four days, they made a little preview of what the audience could expect. They called it, Spinal Tap: The Final Tour. British actress June Chadwick met them around this time. “They had apparently done this twenty-minute demo and were taking it around, showing it to people. And the consensus, they thought, was that there was no storyline to it, and they needed a storyline,” she recalled. "So they came up with the storyline of my character (Jeanine Pettibone) coming in.”
In the film, documentary filmmaker Marty diBergi follows Spinal Tap on their 1982 US concert tour to promote their new album Smell the Glove. The band — made up of childhood friends David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel on vocals and guitar, as well as Derek Smalls on bass, Viv Savage on keyboardist, and Mick Shrimpton on drums — is a bit of a mess. Poor ticket sales, problems with their manager, and the annoying girlfriend of a band member (played by Chadwick), among other factors, are breaking the group apart. Angry, frustrated, and increasingly dysfunctional, Spinal Tap must either find a way to resolve their issues, or fade away into obscurity.
The fact that the movie was a work of fiction didn't register with a lot of people. Some viewers even complained about the camerawork being “too shaky” in preview screenings. “When Spinal Tap initially came out, everybody thought it was a real band,” Reiner told Newsweek in 2010. “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.” This despite the fact that the credits state the band is fictional, “And there’s no Easter Bunny, either!” Ozzy Osbourne was one of them. “They seemed quite tame compared to what we got up to,” he once said.
When Black Sabbath was on its 1983 Born Again tour, they too had a Stonehenge stage prop incident similar to the one in the film. Except, their monument was much too large and couldn’t be used. The band was, for a while, convinced that they served as the inspiration for the moment, but that is not so, since the scene in the movie was actually filmed in 1982 as part of the 20-minute video pitch the comedians used to get their production greenlit. And then there’s the fact that there is nothing about the Stonehenge bit that suggests a rush job; after all, a full song was composed, a live rendition was recorded, and so on.
But Black Sabbath was not the only band that was concerned with the similarities between the film and their rock 'n' roll lives. “We do love that, the musicians who have said, ‘Man, I can't watch Spinal Tap, it’s too much like my life,’” reveals Harry Shearer. “That's the highest compliment of all. It beats all the Oscar nominations we never got.” Indeed, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, Eddie Vedder, Dee Snider, The Edge, and Tom Waits are just a few of the musicians who have referenced similarities between the film and their own lives.
Some people don’t realize that all of the tracks in This Is Spinal Tap were written by the foursome. And, because the music is actually pretty enjoyable, the fictional film has led to legitimate music careers for McKean, Guest, and Shearer, who have since released three albums, done numerous interviews in character, and performed in concert (including at Live Earth). “We played the Pyramid Stage,” Guest shared with The Wrap in 2013. “There were 130,000 people there or something. Since the film 30 years ago we've gone on tour, playing Wembley, the [Royal] Albert Hall, Carnegie Hall… The fiction became real.”
There were a lot of ideas that didn’t make it into the final cut of the film. For one, Reiner had originally planned to play a member of the band, but didn’t when Shearer reportedly informed him that he “didn't look good in spandex.” There was also a subplot that explained why the band members are often seen with cold sores on their lip — turns out, all three had slept with the lead singer of their opening act and got herpes — which was cut from the film. And because there were over 100 hours of footage, it took three editors, nine months, and a lot of outtakes to get the version of the movie we have now.
Diehard fans can watch a four-and-a-half hour long director's cut. “McKean described this cut as ‘amazing’ and noted that the cast saw ‘a lot of stuff we wanted to boot out, storylines that had to go. Some of that stuff resulted in a better movie. The removal of things gave us jokes we didn’t know we had.’” Still, in 2002, This Is Spinal Tap was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry because it is a film that is considered “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress. But most people who love the rockumentary have been cranking it up to 11 ever since the film was released, way back in 1984.