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MGM Studios DVD presents
Nigel Tufnel: "The numbers all go to eleven. Look, right across the board, eleven, eleven, eleven and - "
Review Note: This review is based on an advanced review copy of This Is Spinal Tap. Since we received this copy, MGM has announced that they are recalling the existing copies of the DVD. The reason for this is that the subtitles in the original film which specify filming locations and certain characters were inadvertently removed from the existing image transfer. The new release will feature an image transfer with these subtitles intact. MGM is pressing to get the new copies into stores in time for the previously planned release date of September 12th. Since this will be the only alteration from the version we have reviewed, the text of this review should be perfectly valid for the upcoming "corrected" version as well.
There is no use denying it, This Is Spinal Tap is a cultural phenomenon. This film, which came into being way back in 1984, is former All In the Family co-star Rob Reiner's first directorial effort. Reiner has since become one of the most prominent directors in Hollywood, with such hits as A Few Good Men and When Harry Met Sally... under his belt. However, unlike several other actors-turned-directors who have had to eat humble pie their first few times out, Reiner has hit a home run at his first trip to the plate.
This Is Spinal Tap presents itself in the guise of a rock documentary or "rockumentary," a term that this film may very well have coined and which is now used liberally by cable television mainstays MTV, VH-1 and so on. Struggling director Marty DiBergi (Reiner), whose previous experience is in commercials, has heard that his favorite rock band from his youth, Spinal Tap, is coming to America for a "farewell tour" to promote its new album, Smell the Glove. The band has graciously allowed DiBergi to tag along and film and interview everything and everyone, on stage and off, for his film.
Spinal Tap, known in some circles as "The World's Loudest Band", has been together since the sixties and has reinvented itself several times. At first, they were known as The Thames Men, and were a clean cut British pop band, a la The Beatles. In the late sixties and early seventies they grew their hair long, adopted their current name, and morphed into a hippie band. With the departure of the "free love" era, they morphed again to their current form, as a glam metal band who bombard their listeners with heavy riffs, ear-bleeding guitar solos, trite, sexist lyrics, and colorful spandex stretch pants. In this current iteration of themselves, they are probably years past their prime. Oblivious to this, they begin this new U.S. tour with high expectations. Unfortunately for them, these expectations quickly become quashed as the tour moves forward. Their core audience of years past, teenage boys, has grown up. These more mature listeners turn up only in small numbers to reminisce while the teenage boys of this era seem relatively disinterested in this group of long-haired fossils prancing about the stage. In other words, the teeming masses of faithful they expected to come flocking to their jangled guitar chords no longer exist. As the fact of their obsolescence begins to sink in, tensions begins to erupt, first between the band and the record company, then between the band and its manager, and finally between the members of the band itself. DiBergi is there with his cameras to catch the ensuing hilarity.
The actual genealogy of Spinal Tap is not something of which I am entirely sure. I have read that it is largely a fictitious representation of real life band Black Sabbath. Despite this, the band we get to know via DiBergi's cameras is an almost certainly an amalgam of various heavy metal band stereotypes. Spinal Tap's three main members, David St. Hubbins (McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Guest), and Derek Smalls (Shearer), possess room temperature IQ's, loquacious natures, and incredibly laughable philosophies on music, women, and life in general. Bringing these fascinating characters to life is a memorable collection of actors, many now-famous faces who were then very early on in their careers. Reiner does double-duty as director and actor, playing Marty DiBergi. Michael McKean, previously best known for his role as Lenny on TV's Laverne and Shirley, plays Spinal Tap's lead singer David St. Hubbins. Harry Shearer (who does several voices for TV's The Simpsons) plays the band's unusual bassist, Derek Smalls. In what is easily the comedic pillar of the film, SNL alum Christopher Guest plays lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel. A plethora of famous faces fill smaller roles. Fran Drescher does solid work in a supporting role as opinionated Polymer Records rep, Bobbi Flekman. Bruno Kirby plays a loudmouthed chauffeur, Billy Crystal and Dana Carvey appear as hors d'oeuvre toting mimes, comedian Archie Hawn plays a room service waiter, Letterman-sidekick Paul Shaffer appears as a goofy concert promoter, Ed Begley Jr. appears in vintage footage as the band's first drummer, Howard Hesseman, Anjelica Huston, Fred Willard and so on.
The writing team (and songwriting team) of Reiner, McKean, Shearer, and Guest could have taken the easy way out and only written catchy snippets of songs for the actors to perform on stage. Instead, they have created several whole songs (released as an album as well) with such catchy titles as Hell Hole, Big Bottom, and Sex Farm all performed by the actors themselves (and surprisingly well at that). What this team has created is an incredibly original film that possesses a rare blend of first-rate style and substance. This Is Spinal Tap ranks up there with such films as Airplane! and Monty Python and the Holy Grail as a groundbreaking, must-see comedy.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: This is MGM release marks the second time that This Is Spinal Tap has been released on DVD. For this release, the film has received a brand new anamorphic transfer (the out of print Criterion edition features a far less impressive 1.70:1 letterbox widescreen transfer). Unfortunately, there is no way to completely hide the film's age and the low-budget documentary style of its filmmaking. In some scenes the colors appear to be slightly muted, in others slightly over-saturated. Notable graininess appears throughout. Despite these age-related defects, the picture is relatively crisp and pleasing. This is undoubtedly the best this film has ever looked.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: The same word can be used to describe several of the Dolby Digital 5.1 re-mixes of older films I have heard recently; "gimmicky". With this is mind, This Is Spinal Tap proved to be a pleasant surprise. The surround channels, while silent in most of the numerous dialogue-driven scenes in the film, are consistently employed to good atmospheric effect in the several concert hall scenes as well as the cocktail party scene early in the film. Dialogue is crisp and distinct from background noise. Again, when factoring in the age of the film, I have to give this audio transfer very high marks.
The out of print Criterion release features only a 2.0 stereo track of the film.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in French, Spanish, English (closed-captions only) with remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
3 TV Spots/Teasers
14 Deleted Scenes
1 Feature/Episode commentary by David St. Hubbins (McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Guest), and Derek Smalls (Shearer)
Layers Switch: between film and supplemental
If you like seeing scenes deleted from the final cut of a film, this DVD has enough to satiate almost any appetite. Over an hours worth are offered here in 14 chapters (with a text-based menu for easy navigation). Presented in 2.0 stereo, the video quality is inferior to the film itself but is actually pretty good for a batch of deleted scenes. Most are hilarious, such as a band interview on a radio talk show, and were probably cut only for brevity. A lesser number were probably best left on the cutting room floor. Generally, I think Reiner was wise to keep the running time of the actual theatrical presentation down and leave the audience wanting more rather than drowning them in the gimmick of this film.
A generous handful of additional extras round out this presentation. A five-minute interview entitled Catching Up With Marty DiBergi further elaborates on the gigantic rift that has developed between the band and DiBergi, including some press conference footage wherein David and Nigel publicly lambaste DiBergi. Four music videos are also included. Three, Gimme Some Money, (Listen to the) Flower People and Big Bottom, are based on footage from the film. The fourth, Hell Hole, is an original production created in the most cheesy early MTV style. Two trailers, the original theatrical and a bizarre "Cheese Rolling" trailer, as well as three TV spots are also included. Coming in under two minutes each, excerpts from the band's 1960's Flower People press conference and an interesting, albeit not terribly funny, band interview on The Joe Franklin Show are also added. Lastly, four commercials, three for a product called "Rock and Rolls", round out this impressive batch of extras.
While there is no isolated music score, all of the menu screens have Spinal Tap songs playing in the background. The menus themselves are static but feature clever animated transitions.
Yes, this is a great batch of extras, but I cannot give them my highest rating due to a complete lack of film-specific supplements. As much as I enjoyed the included commentary with the film characters themselves, I found myself strongly longing an additional commentary, or even a documentary, that highlights the creative process behind the film. This is one area where the out of print Criterion release beats this new MGM release hands down. The Criterion edition features two commentary tracks, one with Reiner, producer Karen Murphy, and editors Kent Beyda and Robert Leighton, the other with McKean, Guest, and Shearer (as themselves, not in character). The Criterion edition also contains a few extra deleted scenes and a 20-minute demo version of the film not found on the new MGM version. If these missing Criterion extras sound like "must-haves" to you, old copies of the Criterion edition can still be found, although often at highly inflated prices.
Extras Grade: A-
Final CommentsIf you have never had the pleasure of watching This Is Spinal Tap, I strongly encourage you to give it a look. It is truly one of the most original and effective American comedies of the last twenty years.
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