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…lived an ancient race of people, the Druids.
No one knows who they were or what they were doing
But their legacy remains, hewn into the living rock of Stonehenge…
‘Tis May, when our thoughts turn to parody. And what is the greatest parody of all time? Oh there are many that rate a 10 on the Gossamercat-o-meter. Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, The Rutles, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, A Mighty Wind. But only one rates an 11. That’s right: This Is Spinal Tap, the original mockumentary. The hard rock masterpiece featuring David St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel and Derek Smalls, the rocking and clueless alter egos of Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer. Not even the presence of Rob Reiner can diminish its place as the pinnacle of parody. The movie was released in 1984, back when he was amusing and not insufferable.
And give yourself an 11 too if you recognized the title as the intro to their magnum opus “Stonehenge,” “where the demons dwell, where the banshees live and they do live well.“
The first time I saw it in 1984, I laughed so hard my jaw hurt and my stomach muscles were sore the next day. They captured everything absurd about Rock’n’Roll. The hair, the history, the music, the clothes, the accents, the bombast, the tenuous tenures of drummers, the “bits and pieces of every Eastern religion.” And, of course, those classic lines:
- “I believe virtually everything I read, and I think that is what makes me more of a selective human than someone who doesn’t believe anything.” — David St. Hubbins
- “It’s written in D minor, which I always find the saddest of all keys…it makes people weep instantly.” — Nigel Tufnel
- “I’m really influenced by Mozart and Bach, and it’s sort of in between those, really. It’s like a Mach piece.” — Nigel Tufnel
- “David and Nigel are like poets, you know, like Shelley or Byron, or people like that. The two totally distinct types of visionaries, it’s like fire and ice, and I feel my role in the band is to be kind of the middle of that, kind of like lukewarm water.” — Derek Smalls
- “It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.” — David St Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel
- “Well… don’t point! It can’t be played.” — Nigel Tufnel on his guitar collection
- “We say ‘love your brother.’ Well, we don’t say it literally. We don’t mean it literally. But we’re not racists.” — David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel on why their audience is predominantly white.
- “I don’t want this. I want large bread.” — Nigel Tufnel on his mystifying hors d’oeuvres
- “It’s like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black.” — Nigel Tufnel on their all-black album cover
- “I do not, for one, think that the problem was that the band was down. I think that the problem may have been, that there was a Stonehenge monument on the stage that was in danger of being crushed by a dwarf. Alright? That tended to understate the hugeness of the object.” — David St. Hubbins
- “Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it?” — Nigel Tufnel on his custom amplifier (it goes to 11!)
Apparently, all of these lines were improvised, as Rob Reiner and the others early on gave up on writing a screenplay and just provided the actors with a general outline for the scenes. None of the actors knew what questions were going to be asked, according to an interview in 2019. In order to do this successfully, they had to create a detailed history of the band so that all the actors knew the same things. (Quick, what was their original name? Answer: The Originals, until they became the New Originals then the Thamesmen). They made a 20-minute short to shop to the studios in lieu of a screenplay. There were no takers at first, but eventually Norman Lear agreed to back the film.
You have to love Rock’n’Roll to love the movie. But you also have to get the joke. The actors were so spot-on in their characterizations and their songs, that many people didn’t quite get the film, thinking it was a real film about an obscure band. A really bad obscure band. And who is to say it wasn’t?
The cinematographer on the film, who had worked on documentaries of Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones, didn’t find it particularly funny because “These things really happen.” In fact, many of the funniest scenes in the film were based loosely on real-life incidents.
The “complete catastrophe” of the hors d’oeuvres provided to Nigel was based on a story about Van Halen supposedly asking for all the brown M&M’s to be removed from their dressing room. According to Rob Reiner, Black Sabbath accused them of stealing the Stonehenge idea, as they started a tour with that theme just before the movie was released. It didn’t occur to them that it takes a while to shoot and edit a film. But in a case of life imitating art — and I actually find this hard to believe — Black Sabbath also experienced an epic prop malfunction in their tour according to this article. Only their Stonehenge was too big rather than too small. And just as in the film, units were to blame, with Black Sabbath specifying 15 meters instead of 15 feet. But generally the film is beloved by rockers — Sting apparently weeps when he sees it, both from laughter and nostalgia (Vanity Fair).
The film didn’t do that well when first released. I did my part, seeing it three times. But it soon gained a cult following and in 2002, This is Spinal Tap was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress, and was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. This is Spinal Tap was described as “one of the single most influential movies of the past thirty-five years” by critic Jeremy Arnold as it “effectively launched a new genre—the mockumentary” (quoted in Wikipedia).
And of course, Tap lives! As the actors have so successfully blurred the line not only between stupid and clever, but fact and fiction, they have frequently gone on tour in character over the years. They conducted a world tour in 2009 (but with only one date). And in another case of life imitating art, they’ve gone through a few drummers, but as far as I know, not because of bizarre gardening accidents or spontaneous combustion. I was fortunate to see them in a concert in Southern California in the early 2000s. I believe it was sponsored by Depends Adult Diapers.
So like the Druids, Spinal Tap’s legacy will live on, hewn into the living farce of my favorite parody of all time.Published in