Such a fine line between stupid and clever

I have a sheepish admission to make.

As a devotee of rock music of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, I have been called “a walking encyclopedia” of song lyrics, rock band trivia, chart success of albums and singles, and all manner of unusual anecdotes about rock culture of those years.

But I must confess:  I never got around to seeing the celebrated 1984 rock documentary parody film “This is Spinal Tap” until two days ago.

11976492_1300x1733In rock music circles, my failure to be hip to this movie would be regarded as unforgivable for a rock blog writer.  It has gained its place as an iconic, can’t-be-missed gem that brilliantly satirizes both the rock music business as well as the documentary genre in general.

So anyone who dismisses “This is Spinal Tap” as a silly cult film would be wrong.  True, it took in a rather meager $4.5 million at the box office upon its release.  But this unique and hilarious “rockumentary” has been widely praised by just about everybody who’s seen it (and thanks to video/DVD sales over the years, that number has grown significantly).

Consider this:  “This is Spinal Tap” is ranked #29 on the American Film Institute’s “100 Best Comedies of All Time.”  Entertainment Weekly included it on its “100 Greatest Movies” list, calling it “just too beloved to ignore.”  Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 95% rating, with this critical consensus:  “Smartly directed, brilliantly acted, packed with endlessly quotable moments.  An all-time comedy classic.”   Even the friggin’ Library of Congress deemed it “of aesthetic cultural significance” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry!

Pretty damn solid credentials for a film that was shot in a month by a first-time director who had no script.

video-this-is-spinal-tap-trailer-2-videoSixteenByNine1050That director was the great Rob Reiner, who started his career as an actor playing Michael “Meathead” Stivic on the Seventies TV classic “All in the Family” and has gone on to direct such landmark films as “Stand By Me,” “The Princess Bride,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “Misery,” “A Few Good Men,” “The American President,””Ghosts of Mississippi” and “The Bucket List.”

Reiner has comedy in his genes, thanks to his father, the legendary Carl Reiner, instrumental in early television sketch comedy on “Your Show of Shows” (1950-1954) and “Sid Caesar’s Hour” (1954-1957), as well as creator of the brilliant “Dick Van Dyke Show” (1961-1966) and director of several Steve Martin comedy films like “The Jerk” (1979) and “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” (1982).

Not surprisingly, it was a challenge getting “This is Spinal Tap” made in the first place.  In those days, a TV actor who had the audacity to say he wanted to direct a film was laughed out of every Hollywood office he approached.  But Reiner kept at it, eventually getting enough seed money to shoot a 20-minute demo of what he had in mind, and then shopping that around until Norman Lear, creator of “All in the Family” and other award-winning TV shows, agreed to back the project.


McKean, Shearer and Guest

Reiner had been friends with comic writer/actor Harry Shearer, and they teamed up in 1978 with Christopher Guest and Michael McKean, comedians who had originally been musicians, on a sketch about a parody rock band for a comedy show called “The TV Show.”  The foursome decided to expand that simple sketch into a novel idea for a faux documentary about a British heavy metal band trying to make a comeback on what became a rather disastrous American tour.


“Chris and Michael had been improvising for years with these characters, playing up their British accents and their dimwitted naiveté,” said Reiner.  “We put together a general arc of a story line, but when we shot the movie, we made it up as went along, because they were just so good at it.  We often used the first take in the final cut, because it captured the natural reactions best.”

Cinematographer Peter Smokler, who had worked on rock & roll documentary films like “Gimme Shelter,” was brought in on the project.  Says Reiner, “The whole time we were shooting, Peter kept turning to me and saying, ‘What’s funny about this?  This is not funny.  This is what they (rock musicians) do.’  And it’s true.  Apparently, a lot of bands at that time were well-meaning but seemed so entitled, and genuinely clueless.”

spinal-tap-2-435x580“This is Spinal Tap” is mischievously witty without being mean-spirited as it tells the tale of an aging, pitiable, slowly disintegrating band, with an arrogant, ineffective manager, who try vainly to keep their hopes up even as they face the embarrassment of half-empty venues and cancelled gigs.

It has an “is it or isn’t it real” quality that at first fooled many viewers into thinking Spinal Tap was a real band and the movie was a bonafide documentary.  Hand-held camera techniques and deft editing between concert footage and backstage interviews made it look not all that different from actual rock docs like “The Last Waltz” or “Don’t Look Back.”

Reiner had seen how Martin Scorsese had put himself in his film “The Last Waltz” as its director, and decided to do the same thing.  “I called myself Marty DiBergi, sort of combining Scorsese, Bergman and Fellini all rolled together.”  He is seen interviewing band members and hangers-on backstage and at press events, and also introduces the film as its director at the beginning.

Much like “Animal House” and “Caddyshack” and other comedies of its era, “This is Spinal Tap” is riddled with quotable lines.  One memorable scene has Guest’s guitarist character showing all the band’s equipment to Reiner’s interviewer character.  He points Spinal_Tap_-_Up_to_Elevenout that they have earned the reputation as “England’s loudest band” because they have amplifiers that can be turned up to 11.  “All these other bands, they can only turn the volume up to 10, but when we need that extra oomph, we can go up one more notch,” the guitarist explains confidently as Reiner stares at him, puzzled.

Reiner said he was dumbfounded when people asked him why he did a documentary of a band no one had ever heard of, a band that was so bad.  “And I would have to say to them, ‘Um…Haven’t you ever heard of satire?  You know, making fun of it all?’  And they would say, ‘Oh, okay…’  It took a while for people to catch up to it and realize it was all a spoof.”

Notorious party-boy rocker Ozzy Osbourne said he was among the audience members who assumed Spinal Tap was a real band.  “When I learned the truth, I realized I should’ve known better.  They seemed quite tame compared to what we were up to.”

In 2005, when U2 was being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, guitarist The Edge had this to say:  “It’s been so hard to keep things fresh, and not to become a parody of yourself.  If you’ve ever seen that movie Spinal Tap, you will know how easy it is to parody what we all do. The first time I ever saw it, I didn’t laugh.  I wept.  I wept because I recognized so much of ourselves in so many of those scenes.”

film__3046-this-is-spinal-tap--hi_res-5993de24Said Shearer in 2002, “The cast and crew love to hear that, the musicians who have said, ‘Man, I can’t watch Spinal Tap, it’s too much like my life.’  That’s the highest compliment of all.  It beats all the Oscar nominations we never got.”  Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, Eddie Vedder, and Dee Snider are just a few of the musicians who have referenced similarities between their own lives and the movie.

When he was casting “The Princess Bride” in 1987, Reiner said Sting, who had come in to audition for the part of Count Humperdinck, told him, “I’ll bet I’ve seen that movie 50 gal-spinal-tap-hutson-inset-jpgtimes.  We wore out our video copy on the tour bus.  Every time I watched, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

Speaking of casting, “This is Spinal Tap” includes some “don’t blink, you’ll miss it” cameos by well-known actors in bit roles.  Billy Crystal, Angelica Huston, Fred Willard, gal-spinaltap-crystal-jpgFran Drescher, Ed Begley Jr., Howard Hesseman, Dana Carvey and Paul Shaffer all show up to add their two cents in the merriment.

Much of the credit for the film’s effectiveness as a parody must go to the trio of Guest, McKean and Shearer for their spot-on performances as fading British rockers who are continually humiliated by the scheduling snafus and corporate disrespect they face.  Guest, you may be aware, has had success in recent years imitating the mockumentary style of “This is Spinal Tap” in such critical favorites as “Waiting for Guffman” (1996), “Best in Show” (2000) and “A Mighty Wind” (2003), which he directed, co-wrote and appeared in.  McKean, who got his start playing neighbor Lenny in the TV chris_michael_harry_pressshow “Laverne and Shirley,” has appeared in nearly 70 films and 100 TV shows over the years, and currently plays older brother Chuck McGill on the “Breaking Bad” spinoff, “Better Call Saul.”  Shearer, of course, has been one of the most important voices of characters on TV’s “The Simpsons” for two decades and running.

These guys wrote and performed Spinal Tap’s musical numbers themselves, with help from a few session players, and truth be told, some of the songs aren’t much worse than the tracks you might hear on your average heavy metal album of 1984 (which isn’t saying much).

tapbackfrondead_400x400In the years since the film’s original release, Guest, McKean and Shearer have periodically reunited as their film’s characters and improbably turned Spinal Tap into an honest-to-goodness band that went on the road and into the studio.  (A Spotify playlist below provides a decent sampling of their repertoire.)  Their 1992 album “Break Like the Wind” reached #61 on the US charts, and 2009’s “Back From the Dead” peaked at a respectable #52.  Said Guest, “We played the Pyramid Stage, we’ve played at Wembly, Royal Albert Hall, Carnegie Hall.  It’s weird, but great.  The fictional became real.”


Art imitates life:  The ’70s hard rock band Uriah Heep once found themselves having to perform at a lame Air Force base social event, an incident that Shearer chose to include in Spinal Tap’s itinerary.

Life imitates art:  Heavy-metal titans Metallica said their 1991 LP “Metallica” (commonly known as “The Black Album”) is a tribute to the film’s scene where Spinal Tap’s record label replaced offensive artwork for its “Smell the Glove” LP with a plain black cover.

In one telling scene, Spinal Tap’s band members are angry about their album cover — a 64625_mx_uKqoNLdISDnxr_34157photo of a naked woman on her knees restrained by a dog collar and leash — being refused, when another group is given permission for their cover, which instead features the band members in the same degrading position.  When the difference is pointed out to them, they look at each other and say, “Hmmm.  It’s such a fine line between stupid…and clever.”

So true.  I suppose some people might find “This is Spinal Tap” monumentally stupid, but for those who appreciate finely tuned parody, I think it’s clever as hell.  As someone who just viewed it for the first time in 2018, I think I could make the argument that this movie probably works better today than it did when it was first released.  One of the movie’s goals was to satirize the concept of aging rockers engaging in “comeback” tours and albums, and, while there was plenty of that taking place in the early ’80s, it has surely become even more prevalent today.  Heavy metal headbangers might look absurd on the stage in their 30s; how about when they’re old enough for Medicare?







The legends were all there that night

I’d like to shine a light this week on a little gem of a pop culture artifact that every true rock music fan should see.  Available on DVD only since 2009, it’s considered the very first rock concert film ever made, and it’s about time more people knew about it.

As Miami Steve Van Zandt has said, “It’s the greatest rock movie you’ve never seen.”

51cR8JMSnPLIn 1964 — half a decade before the first rock festival films (“Monterey Pop” in 1968 and “Woodstock” in 1970), before “The Concert for Bangladesh” in 1972, and way before major filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme were making “The Last Waltz” (1978) and “Stop Making Sense” (1984) — there was a groundbreaking flick featuring a dozen of the hottest acts of that pre-psychedelic era, all on one stage.

It has the awkward title “The T.A.M.I. Show,” and it chronicles one remarkable concert held on October 29, 1964 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.

Performing that night were the very young Rolling Stones, the irrepressible James Brown, rock’n roll pioneer Chuck Berry, California kings The Beach Boys, New York teen sensation Lesley Gore, Merseybeat stars Gerry & the Pacemakers, and Motown titans The Supremes, Smokey and the Miracles, and Marvin Gaye, among others.

Now admittedly, some people — particularly those born after, say, 1990 who are used to more modern film techniques — will probably find parts of this footage excruciatingly dated.  First of all, it was shot in black and white, and the stage sets and backdrops are


Jan and Dean

pretty cheesy.  God knows the emcees, Jan & Dean, came across as totally hokey.  Some of the song selections might have been a little lame.  And you might find the clothes sported by the artists and the “go-go dancers” to be about as straight-laced as the “Breck girl” and pompadour hairstyles.

But hey, that was what young people were wearing in the early ’60s — surf shirts, matching tuxedos, bikinis and the like.  In almost every way, this flick is a period piece, and in that regard, it offers a broad spectrum of 1964 music and styles, from California to New York, from London to Detroit.  Viewers need to take all that into account.


James Brown and The Famous Flames

Most important, of course, is the music.   Some, even many, of the performances captured here are eye-opening, mind-blowing, simply extraordinary.

IMG_2312Far and away the most electrifying set is by “The Godfather of Soul” James Brown and The Famous Flames.  At his prime, which might have been right around this period, there was nobody remotely like him in terms of raw energy, sexuality, tight dance moves, and the emotion he could squeeze out of each song:  “Out of Sight,” “Prisoner of Love,” “Please, Please, Please” and the stone classic “Night Train.”   He definitely left it all out there, with the all-white crowd of local teens losing its collective mind.

(Yes, it was impossible to ignore there weren’t more than a handful of black faces in the audience.  I’m not sure why that had to be the case in Santa Monica in 1964, but actually, there were precious few integrated audiences anywhere in the US back then, and wouldn’t be until near the end of the decade.)


Marvin Gaye

The smooth, sensual Marvin Gaye gets my vote for next best act of the evening.  He had mesmerizing stage presence in his all-white tux, caressing the mike as he belted out four R&B classics:  “Stubborn Kind of Fellow,” “Pride and Joy,” “Can I Get a Witness” and “Hitch Hike.”  He was a loyal Motown team player at that time, with a golden voice, recording whatever material Berry Gordy pushed on him (most of which was pretty great), although by the 1970s, he insisted on more control, and came up with brilliant tracks like “What’s Going On” and “Mercy Mercy Me.”


Keith and Mick

As for The Stones, it’s a total treat to see Mick Jagger and Company go through their paces as 21-year-olds, especially the now-craggy-looking Keith Richards, who appeared to be about 16 here (he was 20).  Co-founder Brian Jones was still a vibrant part of things then, and Bill Wyman was still holding down the bass lines to complement Charlie Watts’s drums.  But I have to say, they made a tactical error when they insisted on being the final act of the


Bill Wyman and Brian Jones

night, because Brown completely upstaged them.  Remember, at that point, they hadn’t recorded “Satisfaction” or “Get Off My Cloud” or “Paint It Black” and their material was chiefly cover versions.  (Their set list:  “Around and Around,” “Off the Hook,” “Time Is On My Side,” “It’s All Over Now” and “It’s All Right.”)  Richards has said in interviews about the T.A.M.I. Show that choosing to follow Brown “was probably the biggest mistake we ever made in our careers.  But we survived,” he chuckled.

Interestingly, it should have been The Beach Boys and The Supremes (or even Lesley Gore) vying for the headliner status, since they were the ones with the multiple #1 hits on the US charts at that point.  But there’s no doubt that Brown or The Stones were the more exciting live act and would provide the better climax to the evening’s festivities.


One of Brian Wilson’s final live shows with The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys’ footage is special because the great Brian Wilson, their genius songwriter/producer, was still performing with them, and he’s clearly the focal point.  His falsetto lead vocal on “Surfer Girl” will knock you out.  Less than two months later, Wilson retired from live performances, replaced on tour by others (including Glen Campbell for a spell).  Dennis Wilson shows a lot of pizazz on drums, and Mike Love does his predictable little dance moves, with Al Jardine and a baby-faced Carl Wilson contributing guitar parts for their four-song set of coast-to-coast hits:  “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “I Get Around,” “Surfer Girl” and “Dance, Dance, Dance.”



Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross

The Supremes, of course, were in the middle of an unprecedented string of five consecutive #1 hits, rivaling The Beatles on the charts from mid-’64 to mid-’65.  The incomparable Diana Ross, with strong backing from Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson, opened with two lesser hits — “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” and “Run, Run, Run” — before sending the crowd into a frenzy with “Baby Love” and “Where Did Our Love Go.”  I’m not sure if it’s endearing or just weird when a dozen teen dancers come roaring onto the stage to shake and shimmy behind the famous trio.


Smokey Robinson (right) and The Miracles

Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Motown’s original #1 hit group, didn’t disappoint, serving up a smart set of three tunes, opening with their latest single “That’s What Love is Made Of,” followed by two of their biggest hits thus far — “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” and “Mickey’s Monkey.”  Robinson, who wrote so many of the songs recorded by numerous Motown groups, performed passionately on lead vocals as The Miracles crooned and danced in unison beside him.


Lesley Gore

I’m not sure why Lesley Gore was allowed to sing six numbers, more than anyone else, except to say she had a dynamite voice (no lip-synching here), and a couple of the tunes were shortened and squeezed into a mini-medley.  She represented the New York girl-group sound of the early ’60s, which may have been on its way out within a year or two, but you wouldn’t know it from this great performance.  Her songs:  “Maybe I Know,” the ahead-of-its-time “You Don’t Own Me,” “You Didn’t Look Around,” “Hey Now” and her back-to-back 1962 classics, “It’s My Party” and “Judy’s Turn to Cry.”


Chuck Berry, and The T.A.M.I. Dancers

Fittingly, the producers chose to open the proceedings with original rock and roller Chuck Berry, but I found it very strange that they made him share the stage with England’s pop group Gerry and The Pacemakers.  Berry kicked things off with a solid “Johnny B. Goode” and then segued into his first hit, 1955’s “Maybellene”… but suddenly in mid-song, the camera swung over to The Pacemakers doing the same song!  Their hit ballad “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” the_tami_show_320was next, and “It’s Gonna Be Alright” … but then it was back to Berry doing “Sweet Little Sixteen”… then another Pacemakers song “How Do You Do It?” before Berry had one final shot with “Nadine (Is That You?).”  The Pacemakers got to close out this bizarre interplay with their hit “I Like It.”  There has been no explanation I could find in my research to justify this back-and-forth nonsense.

Also part of the show were lesser acts like Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas (“Bad to Me,” “Little Children”), Jan and Dean (“The Little Old Lady From Pasadena”), and The Barbarians (“Hey Little Bird”).  Suffice to say they were the filler between the quality acts.

If you look closely, you can see that the house band backing the vocalists was none other than The Wrecking Crew, L.A.’s loose assemblage of excellent session musicians who appeared anonymously on hundreds of hit records through the ’60s and ’70s.  Glen Campbell on guitar and Leon Russell on piano are among those doing their magic in the shadows.  And the dancers, choreographed by the award-winning Toni Basil, included a few future stars including actress Teri Garr.

So what does “T.A.M.I.” stand for, anyway?  It’s an acronym for the strangely named non-profit organization Teenage Awards Music International  (how’s that for garbled syntax?).  The plan was for the organization to produce a series of yearly concerts and award ceremonies for TV broadcast, and possible feature film release, with proceeds earmarked for music scholarships and other programs benefiting teenage music education.  But none of these things — except the initial 1964 concert and subsequent movie — ever materialized.  All that remains is this historical DVD with the curious title.

When the producers went looking for the acts they wanted, they naturally started with The Beatles, but they were unavailable, so manager Brian Epstein agreed to send two other acts under his purview (Gerry and The Pacemakers and Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas).  The Stones were young and hungry and jumped at the chance.  Motown was happy to provide three major acts, and The Beach Boys were eager to be part of the California-based event.  Getting Chuck Berry brought in the early rock influence, while Lesley Gore represented the “girl group” sound.  It was a perfect storm of everything on the pop music scene at the time.

Perhaps most remarkable about the filming of this extravaganza was the use of four then-new “Electronovision” cameras that allowed for live editing on the spot, and audio that was mixed down live in the room from four-track to “glorious mono” (the preferred format of the day).  There is no unused footage, no alternate takes, and no multitrack audio to be remixed, so what you see is what actually happened, absolutely live.  With that in mind, the result is a truly astounding, high-quality concert film.

IMG_2326The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, by the way, has its own legendary status.  Opened in 1958 as a combination concert hall/convention center, it hosted the Academy Awards for several years, and was the scene of dozens of rock concerts from the mid-’60s to the mid-’80s.  Beginning with The Doors in 1967, many top artists were drawn to the venue’s great acoustics, including Creedence, BS&T, Pink Floyd, The Kinks, Van Morrison, Procol Harum, Traffic, David Bowie, Genesis, Lou Reed, Journey, Rush, Jethro Tull and The Clash.  Upstaged by newer Los Angeles venues in the ’90s, the facility is now mostly dormant, used only occasionally for film and commercial shoots.

Do yourself a favor and take this trip down proverbial memory lane.  You won’t be disappointed!