This Is Spinal Tap

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
MGM Home Entertainment
Cast: Rob Reiner, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer
Extras: Commentary Track, Director Interview, Deleted Scenes, Press Conference, Theatrical Trailers, TV Spots, TV Appearances, Music Videos

In this era of "Reality TV", it can be easy to forget how entertaining fiction can be. And it’s easier to forget that fiction can be even more entertaining when it’s trying very hard to look like reality. "This is Spinal Tap" is a mockumentary — that is, a fictionalized account of an event, which never really happened. But, on the surface, it looks like a very real documentary. "This is Spinal Tap" may not have been the first mock-rockumentary (Eric Idle’s "The Rutles" came out in 1978), but it is still the best and has developed a cult following. And, fans are always clamoring for the "ultimate" edition of the movie. Now, MGM Home Entertainment is bringing us a new special edition DVD of "This is Spinal Tap." The question now becomes, how does it compare to past editions of the film?

This is Spinal Tap" chronicles the American tour of the fictional band, Spinal Tap. The "rockumentary" was made by filmmaker Marty DiBergi (played by director/co-writer Rob Reiner), who often appears in the film, interviewing the band. (It should be noted that DiBergi’s name is trademarked in the film.) Spinal Tap is made up of guitarist/vocalist David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), and bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer), plus a drummer and keyboardist. Spinal Tap has been in existence since the mid 1960’s and their sound has evolved with the times. (Actually, they play whatever music is popular, in hopes of cashing in on a fad.) For their 1984 tour, the band is playing heavy metal and sporting a giant devil skull over their stage. The documentary also features the band’s manager, Ian Faith (Tony Hendra) and Jeanine (June Chadwick), David’s girlfriend.

The "rockumentary" chronicles the few highs and many lows that the band experiences during their tour. Spinal Tap is touring to promote their new album "Smell The Glove." Release of the album has been delayed due to the graphic nature of the album cover. But, that’s just the beginning of the band’s troubles. As the tour proceeds, the band finds themselves faced with many obstacles. While "documenting" the tour, DiBergi also interviews the band to gain insight into their checkered past, most interestingly how all of their former drummers have died under mysterious circumstances.

The thing that makes "This is Spinal Tap" really great, is the fact that it doesn’t look or feel like a comedy. The film is shot and presented in a true documentary style and never wavers from it. But, behind this realistic veneer is one of the most absurd and comical stories ever captured on film. The difficulties that plague the band always start out as sounding plausible, but then quickly turn farcical, such as the infamous "none blacker" album cover. And, as the film progresses, we begin to understand that St. Hubbins, Tufnel, and Smalls, are three of the dumbest people who have ever lived. With the advent of shows like VH-1’s "Behind the Music", we’ve now seen that there are real-life bands out there who are just as stupid and accident prone as Spinal Tap, thus adding to the genius of the film.

"This is Spinal Tap" was conceived by director Rob Reiner and stars McKean, Guest, and Shearer. The truly amazing thing about the film is that it was shot for less than $3 million and without a true shooting script. The three leads, McKean, Guest, and Shearer are all outstanding, especially as each brings his characters unique personality to the screen. Sheaer does a great job of being the "dumb" one, when all three of them are idiots.

Besides the "story", the other great thing about "This is Spinal Tap" is the music. The songs in the film are sung in a style where all of the ludicrous lyrics are audible, thus adding to the comedic value of the film. All of the songs in the film were written by Reiner, McKean, Guest, and Shearer, and performed by the three lead actors. Also, Spinal Tap’s portrayal of heavy metal rockers is dead on. (And surprisingly accurate, since that brand of metal didn’t really take off until about 1986.)

Many readers of this review will be interested in knowing how the newly released special edition DVD of "This is Spinal Tap" compares to the edition released by the Criterion Collection in July 1998. The new special edition of "This is Spinal Tap" from MGM Home Entertainment, presents the film in an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>, which is <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.70:1. The image is very crisp and clear, although there is noticable grain in most every shot. Despite the nice digital transfer, the film can’t escape the fact that it was made for less than $3 million and has the look of a low budget film. (One report claims that "This is Spinal Tap" was shot in 16mm and blown up to 35mm for its theatrical release. While this can’t be corroborated, it would explain the look of the film.) There are also some noticeable defects on the source print, consisting mainly of scratches and blemishes. Despite these drawbacks, the MGM DVD looks much better than the Criterion transfer, which shows much more grain, is often darker, and has a hazy look. Although generally well done, the compression of the material is not without flaws. Signs of <$pixelation,pixelation> and pixel break-up are evident in a number of instances.

The audio on the special edition of "This is Spinal Tap" is a <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 mix> that is very impressive. The surround sound is active throughout the film, adding an extra layer to the crowd noise of the concerts. The music in the film sounds very good in this mix, and there is a nice amount of bass response. This audio mix offers a wider dynamic range than the Dolby 2-channel surround mix that was on the Criterion disc.

One major difference between the two DVD versions of the film is a flaw with the MGM version. The film itself contains many on-screen titles that identify locations and characters. These titles are absent from the MGM version. So, there’s no identification of the band members at the beginning of the film and no tracking of the locations throughout the tour. The film just isn’t the same without the words "Chapel Hill, North Carolina" appearing on-screen.
(Editor: We have since been informed by MGM Home Entertainment that this error was caught and that replacement discs have been shipped to retailers. By the time this DVD hits the streets, all defective DVDs should have been replaced with corrected ones.)

The easiest way to look at it is that the MGM DVD attempts to maintain the premise that Spinal Tap is a "real" band by presenting features that play into the false "reality" of the documentary. The special edition DVD features an <$commentary,audio commentary> with the three main members of Spinal Tap — St. Hubbins, Tufnel, and Smalls. Let’s get one thing straight, this commentary is hilarious. The three band members don’t like the film and accuse DiBergi of showing them in a bad light. So, the bulk of their commentary is made up of letting know how DiBergi was distorting the truth in each scene. The funniest thing in the commentary is a running joke where they assume that everyone in the film must be dead by now. The drawback to this commentary is that we gain no insight into what went into making the real film. Also, the trio speak over the main menu as they try to decide what "scene selections" means.

There is a five-minute interview with Marty DiBergi, who describes his experiences on the film and his reactions to Spinal Tap’s accusations that he did a "hatchet job" on them. He also talks about the work that he’s done since making "This is Spinal Tap". While this segment is funny, once again, we gather no real information about the making of the film. As stated earlier, this new DVD maintains the conceit that "This is Spinal Tap" was about a real band, that had a real reaction to the film.

The MGM DVD features over one hour of deleted scenes, most of which were also part of the Criterion disc. The new scenes consist of a conversation between St. Hubbins and Tufnel at the New York party, an interview in a hot tub, and some new interactions between St. Hubbins and Jeanine. Interestingly, the scenes which show the subplot with the opening act and how Spinal Tap gets herpes aren’t included on the MGM DVD. Incidentally, the deleted scenes on the MGM DVD appear seem to have undergone some restoration when compared to the scenes on the Criterion disc.

The new DVD contains a theatrical trailer for "This is Spinal Tap", which is presented full-frame. (This trailer proves how difficult this film was to market.) Also included is the short version of the "cheese rolling" trailer, but not the longer cut that was on the Criterion disc. There are three TV spots for the film, which are unique to the new DVD, and four music videos: "Gimme Some Money", "Hell Hole", "Flower People" and "Big Bottom", the latter two of which aren’t found on the Criterion DVD. The "Heavy Metal Memories" TV commercial spoof is included, as is a newly presented appearance from "The Joe Franklin Show" (which feels oddly truncated). There are also three TV commercials in which Spinal Tap promotes a food product called "Rock and Rolls", a Hot-Pocket like snack.

The final verdict on this comparison is that fans of "This is Spinal Tap" will want to own both versions. As both DVDs offer some different special features, the completist would need both. For casual fans of the movie who are more interested in the film itself, then I must recommend the MGM special edition. This DVD offers a superior video transfer and has better sound. The MGM DVD contains enough extra features to keep most proponents of the film satisfied.