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Blu-ray Review: This is Spinal Tap

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Crank it all the way to "11." A catch-phrase that has its own Wikipedia page; in fact, it was entered into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2002. It's an elegant shorthand for pushing the volume (or whatever else you're talking about) to its limit. It's but one piece of pop culture that owes its status in the zeitgeist to This is Spinal Tap.

Originally released 25 years ago, the "rockumentary/mockumentary" (being released on Blu-ray by MGM Home Entertainment July 28) follows the fictional English band Spinal Tap on its US tour in support of its new album Smell the Glove. Director Rob Reiner (also playing documentary filmmaker Marty DiBergi), sits in on sessions, interviewing and hanging out with the fictitious heavy metal band, including Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), lead singer David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer).

Always following the trend, from their earliest days as Mersey-Beat wannabes to psychedelic folk-rockers to the early-'80s reincarnation of the Heavy Metal headbangers, Spinal Tap circa 1983 is a group of middle-aged rockers on their last breath. DiBergi's film tracks the band's "big-splash" entry back into the concert-tour market by limousine to their final, rather humiliating, concert just before they decide call it a day.

The brilliance of the movie itself lies in its realism. Creating a broad and deep history for Spinal Tap (complete with "old" interview tapes, music videos and press conferences), the writers have hit every note authentically. Guest, McKean and Shearer (with Reiner) wrote as well as perform all the music themselves, blurring the lines between real and fictional. With only a bare-bones outline of a script and lots of a certain genius for this sort of comedy, the entire movie has an improvisational vibe and the feel of a real documentary—which, in a sense—it is.

Is Spinal Tap a real (albeit satirical) band, despite its fictional origins? The band was created for the film, which then created a real band, with real concerts, real record releases and a life of 25 years and counting, including a performance in 2007's Live Earth Concert. Quite an achievement for a "fake" rock band.

Shearer, McKean and Guest went on to corner the mockumentary market with a series of memorable films over the next two decades. These include Best in Show (about the dog show circuit), Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind, which reunites (among others) three folk musicians (The Folksmen–a sort of anti-Spinal Tap), and For Your Consideration, a less successful satire on Oscar competition and film industry.  But This is Spinal Tap still stands, 25 years later, as one of the funniest (and in some ways, the most dead-on) rock-band films ever made.

Shearer recently received an Emmy nomination for his voice work on FOX Network's venerable series The Simpsons. Shearer has voiced dozens of characters over the series' history, but most regularly the voices of Montgomery Burns, Principal Skinner, Smithers and Ed Flanders.

This was director Reiner's first feature film gig, going on to direct numerous films, including The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, A Few Good Men and The Bucket List.

The two-disc Blu-ray set includes the original film, commentaries by Spinal Tap and a host of additional special features:

Deleted scenes: Cutting room leavings, some of them hysterically funny, are entire cut scenes or alternative takes not used in the final film. Billy Crystal (who appears briefly as a mime/waiter) gives an entire shtick on how the mime/food service business works while being interviewed by DiBergi for the rockumentary. Several scenes shot in  a hot tub and extended interviews scenes are almost an extra movie's worth of material in themselves.

"Catching up with Marty DiBergi:" A short interview with the rockumentary filmmaker elaborates on what's happened to him in the intervening years. He's available, by the way, having been reduced to designing "mouse pads."

Various "press" and publicity appearances by Spinal Tap, including "The Flower People Press Conference" (a black and white "press conference" done circa 1968 during the band's psychedelic period, and Spinal Tap's guest appearance on The Joe Franklin Show. The disc includes several music videos, including "Gimme Some Money"—stepping right out of 1964, "Flower People" circa late 1960s psychedelic folk-rock, "Hell Hole," and "Big Bottom" from the 1983 tour. The brilliance of these features, grainy texture and all, is they are all fake renditions of a real-fake band doing publicity for their tour(s).

Disc two, exclusive to the Blu-ray 25th anniversary release, includes Spinal Tap's Live Earth concert performance in 2007.  Introduced by Marty DiBergi himself, the band is reunited in support of Al Gore's marathon rock fundraiser at Wembly Stadium. Looking a even more long-in-the-thooth, but with as-always perfect hair, they perform "Stonehenge" from the 1983 "tour" in front of its biggest-ever audience. Also included on disc two is an interview by National Geographic Network for it's Stonehenge Decoded series with Nigel (Guest) who is an "expert" on the origins of Stonehenge. It is a dry-as-a-bone deadpan, flat out funny 2007 interview.

The Blu-ray recording has a video resolution of 1080p and an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. It’s a very nice transfer, and the picture is excellent. There is an occasional artifact or halo, but even those seems to add to the slightly homemade feel of the film.

One could want no better sound (even cranked up to "11") than provided by the  DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless soundtrack. It provides a front-row seat and excellent audio, whether in the concert sequences and in the rapid-fire dialogue-heavy scenes.

This is Spinal Tap is a classic comedy film from the genius of Rob Reiner, Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest and Michael McKean. Whether you've seen the film or not, if you appreciate sly, dry and dead-on satire, you should give this a try. Spinal Tap is scheduled to appear The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Tuesday, July 28.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.
  • Orange450

    I’ve never seen This is Spinal Tap. Now I can’t wait until I do!

    “Guest, McKean and Shearer (with Reiner) wrote as well as perform all the music themselves, blurring the lines between real and fictional. With only a bare-bones outline of a script and lots of a certain genius for this sort of comedy, the entire movie has an improvisational vibe and the feel of a real documentary—which, in a sense—it is.”

    It’s kinda embarrassing, but I have to admit that when I was given the soundtrack CD from A Mighty Wind as a gift a few years ago, I didn’t initially realize that the movie was a spoof. Some of the music is truly lovely. I play a piano arrangement of A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow – it’s beautiful by any standards. (And when I play it an octave higher than written, using the “folk guitar” setting on my keyboard, it honestly sounds a lot like the guitar/autoharp arrangement from the movie :-))

    p.s. Preview Comment doesn’t seem to work properly. It only shows the first few lines of the post, with no ability to scroll down and see the rest.

  • Barbara S Barnett

    I love Kiss at the End of the Rainbow! Their songs are great, and I’m sorry I missed McKean, Shearer and Guest when they appeared in Chicago a couple months ago. TWas on a Friday night, alas.

    Their stuff is all first rate, and a lot of people, I’m sure would be totally fooled by Spinal Tap if they weren’t in on the joke. It’s actually #1 on Entertainment Weekly’s Best Cult Movies of all List (which surprised me, because I would have been certain it was Rocky Horror)

  • savta

    Barbara – For some reason, I have been able to access you on twitter or anyone else for that matter. Is it only my problem or have others had the same experience?

  • Barbara S Barnett

    sorry, savta–only saw this just now (I’ve been out of town). Twitter intermittently gets weird. It seems to be OK now.