Reiner modeled this film on straight-faced rock docs such as the Maysles Brothers' Gimme Shelter. The film also shows the influence of Led Zeppelin's The Song Remains the Same and The Band's The Last Waltz. Reiner and the three main actors are credited as the writers because they ad libbed much of the dialogue. Several dozen hours of footage were filmed before Reiner edited it to the released film.
This is Spinal Tap is presented as a serious rock documentary, purportedly filmed and directed by the fictional Marty Di Bergi (Rob Reiner, who was also the actual director of the movie). The faux documentary covers a 1982 United States concert tour by the fictional British rock group "Spinal Tap" to promote their new album Smell the Glove, interspersed with Di Bergi's one-on-one interviews with the members of the group and footage of the group from previous periods in their career.
The band was started by childhood friends, David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) and Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), during the 1960s. Originally named "The Originals", then "The New Originals" to distinguish themselves from an existing group of the same name, they settled on the name "The Thamesmen", finding success with their skiffle/rhythm and blues single "Gimme Some Money". They changed their name again to "Spinal Tap" and enjoyed limited success with the flower power anthem "Listen to the Flower People". Ultimately, the band became successful with heavy metal and produced several albums. The group was joined eventually by bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer), keyboardist Viv Savage (David Kaff), and a series of drummers, each of whom mysteriously died in odd circumstances, including spontaneous human combustion, a "bizarre gardening accident" and choking to death on the vomit of unknown person(s); their current drummer is Mick Shrimpton (R. J. Parnell).
Di Bergi's interviews with St. Hubbins and Tufnel reveal that they are competent composers and musicians, but are dimwitted and immature. Tufnel, in showing his guitar collection to Di Bergi, reveals an amplifier that has volume knobs that go to eleven; when Di Bergi asks, "Why don't you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?" the bewildered Tufnel can only reply, "These go to eleven." Tufnel later plays a somber quasi-classical music composition on piano for Di Bergi, claiming it to be a "Mach piece" (a hybrid between Mozart and Bach), before revealing the composition to be entitled "Lick My Love Pump".
As the tour starts, concert appearances are repeatedly canceled because of low ticket sales. Tensions continue to increase when several major retailers refuse to sell Smell the Glove because of its sexist cover art and there is growing resentment shown towards the group's manager Ian Faith (Tony Hendra). Tufnel becomes even more perturbed when St. Hubbins' girlfriend Jeanine (June Chadwick)—a manipulative yoga and astrology devotee—joins the group on tour, begins to participate in band meetings, and attempts to influence their costumes and stage presentation. The band's distributor, Polymer Records, opts to release Smell the Glove with an entirely black cover without consulting the band. The album fails to draw crowds to autograph sessions with the band.
To revive interest, Tufnel suggests staging a performance of "Stonehenge", an epic song that is to be accompanied in concert by a lavish stage show, and asks Ian to order a giant Stonehenge megalith for the show. However, Tufnel, rushing a sketch on a napkin, mislabels its dimensions, using a double prime symbol instead of single prime. The resulting prop, seen for the first time by the group during a show, is only 18 inches high (instead of the intended 18 feet), making the group a laughingstock on stage. The group accuses Faith of mismanagement, and when St. Hubbins suggests Jeanine should co-manage the group, Faith quits in disgust.
The tour continues, rescheduled into smaller and smaller venues. Tufnel becomes marginalized by Jeanine and St. Hubbins. At their next gig (at a United States Air Force base near Tacoma, Washington) Tufnel is upset by an equipment malfunction and leaves the group in the middle of a show. In their next gig, in an amphitheater at an amusement park in Stockton, California, they find that Nigel's absence severely limits their repertoire. They are forced to improvise a fusion-esque, experimental song entitled "Jazz Odyssey", which is poorly received.
At the last show of the tour, the remaining group considers retirement and venturing into forgotten side projects such as a musical theatre production on the theme of Jack the Ripper entitled Saucy Jack, and acoustic pieces with the London Philharmonic. Just before they go on stage, Tufnel reappears and informs them that he is "a messenger" from Ian Faith and the Spinal Tap song "Sex Farm" is wildly popular in Japan; in fact it has reached number 5 in the charts there. He then tells St. Hubbins that Faith would like to arrange a new tour in that country. St. Hubbins is initially cool to the idea, but later on during their show, St. Hubbins convinces Tufnel to join them on stage, reuniting the band. With Faith as manager once again, and despite losing their drummer Mick as he inexplicably explodes onstage, the film ends with Spinal Tap playing a series of sold-out arena shows for enthusiastic fans on their Japanese tour.
Michael McKean and Christopher Guest met while in college in New York City in the late 1960s, and played music together. They worked with Harry Shearer and Rob Reiner on a TV pilot in 1978 for a sketch comedy show called The TV Show, which featured a parody rock band called Spinal Tap. During production of that sketch (while being burned with oil from on-stage effect) McKean and Guest began to improvise, inventing characters that became David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel.
Guest had previously played guitar under the name "Nigel Tufnel" on Michael McKean and David Lander's album Lenny and the Squigtones.
The entire film was shot in Los Angeles County, over a period of about five weeks. The visit to Elvis's grave was filmed in a park in Altadena, with a mock-up of the grave site. The band sings "Heartbreak Hotel" because that was the only Elvis song for which producer Karen Murphy could obtain rights.
Rob Reiner procured $60,000 from Marble Arch Productions to write a screenplay with McKean, Guest and Shearer, based on the Spinal Tap characters. They realized after a few days of writing that no script could capture the kind of movie they wanted to make, so they decided instead to shoot a short demo of the proposed film. They shopped the demo around to various studios but had no takers, until Norman Lear decided to back the project.
Virtually all dialogue in the film is improvised. Actors were given outlines indicating where scenes would begin and end and character information necessary to avoid contradictions, but everything else came from the actors. As often as possible, the first take was used in the film, to capture natural reactions. Reiner wanted to list the entire cast as writers on the film to acknowledge their contributions, but the Writers' Guild objected, and so only he, Guest, McKean, and Shearer received writing credit.
Veteran documentary cameraman Peter Smokler worked as cinematographer on the film. Smokler had great instincts for camera placement on set, according to Reiner, and is responsible for the film's handheld cinéma vérité style—although the cinematographer did not understand what was supposed to be funny about the movie. With Smokler behind the camera, the film was shot not as a feature film, but as a documentary, without a script or traditional shooting schedule. So much footage was filmed (over 100 hours) that it eventually required three editors to complete the film.
Inspirations for the film included the documentaries Don't Look Back, and The Last Waltz. The famous scene where the band becomes lost backstage was inspired by a video of Tom Petty at a concert in Germany, who walked through a series of doors trying to find the stage at a gig, but ended up on an indoor tennis court.
In post-production, Christopher Guest was very concerned with the verisimilitude of the finger positions on the band's instruments during the concert scenes, and even re-shot some footage after the movie was edited to ensure their hands appeared in sync with the music.
The character of Janine, David's disruptive girlfriend, was added during the production to provide a story-line to the material—in part to mollify studio executives who worried the movie would be plotless. Actress Victoria Tennant was briefly considered for the role, but June Chadwick won the part, thanks to her chemistry with the cast and her improvisation skills.
This Is Spinal Tap was only a modest success upon its initial release. However, the film found greater success, and a cult following, after it was released on video.
Since its release, This Is Spinal Tap has received universal acclaim from critics and is widely regarded as one of the best films of 1984. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film 4 stars out of 4 and wrote "This Is Spinal Tap is one of the funniest, most intelligent, most original films of the year. The satire has a deft, wicked touch. Spinal Tap is not that much worse than, not that much different from, some successful rock bands." Ebert later placed the film on his ten best list of 1984. The film currently holds a 95% "Certified Fresh" rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes. In 2002, This Is Spinal Tap was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
Critics praised the film not only for its satire of the rollercoaster lifestyles of rock stars but also for its take on the non-fiction film genre. David Ansen from Newsweek called the film "a satire of the documentary form itself, complete with perfectly faded clips from old TV shows of the band in its mod and flower-child incarnations".
Even with cameos from Billy Crystal and Patrick Macnee, Spinal Tap still managed to trick many of its moviegoers into believing the band existed. Reiner observed that "when Spinal Tap initially came out, everybody thought it was a real band... the reason it did go over everybody's head was that it was very close to home".
The movie cut close to home for some musicians. Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Jerry Cantrell, Dee Snider and Ozzy Osbourne all reported that, like Spinal Tap, they had become lost in confusing arena backstage hallways trying to make their way to the stage. When Dokken's George Lynch saw the movie he is said to have exclaimed, "That's us! How'd they make a movie about us?" Glenn Danzig had a similar reaction when comparing Spinal Tap to his former band The Misfits saying, "When I first saw Spinal Tap, I was like, 'Hey, this is my old band.'"
On Pete Townshend's 1985 album White City: A Novel, the back cover describes Pete Fountain, a "famous guitarist" visiting the title location, as seen by an old childhood friend. When Pete mentions an incident where his drummer complained that "the caviar in their dressing room was the wrong viscosity - for throwing," the friend notes "This is Spinal Tap is obviously a true story."
Lars Ulrich told a press conference crowd that the Metallica/Guns N' Roses 1992 tour seemed "so Spinal Tap." This tour was in support of Metallica's own "black album". Shortly after the tour started, Metallica's James Hetfield suffered third degree burns on his arms after he stood too close to a pyrotechnic device. Earlier in that tour, backstage at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Show, Metallica met with Spinal Tap and discussed how their "black album" was a homage to Spinal Tap's Smell the Glove. This was captured on the Metallica DVD A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica.
In a 1992 interview, Nirvana explains declining the offer to be a part of the movie Singles. Kurt Cobain goes on to say, "There's never really been a good documentary on rock and roll bands." Dave Grohl then cuts in saying, "Except for Spinal Tap, [that] was the only rock movie worth watching," which Cobain agreed with, as well as mentioning Dont Look Back, by D.A. Pennebaker.
According to a 1997 interview in Spin magazine with Aerosmith rhythm guitarist Brad Whitford, "The first time Steven [Tyler] saw it he didn't see any humor in it." When the movie was released, Aerosmith's most recent album, Rock in a Hard Place, depicted Stonehenge prominently on the cover.
U2 guitarist The Edge said in the documentary It Might Get Loud that when he first saw Spinal Tap "I didn't laugh, I wept," because it summed up what a brainless swamp big-label rock music had become.
It became a common insult for a pretentious band to be told they were funnier than Spinal Tap. As George Lynch put it, the more seriously a band took themselves, the more they resembled Spinal Tap. After seeing a 1986 performance by metal band Venom, singer Henry Rollins compared them to Spinal Tap. In their respective Behind the Music episodes, Quiet Riot's Rudy Sarzo and Ratt's Robbin Crosby compared their own bands to Spinal Tap to some extent. For example, as a parallel to the "Shit Sandwich" incident, Quiet Riot's fourth album Condition Critical was given the two-word review of "Condition Terminal" by J. D. Considine in Musician magazine. His review of the short-lived band GTR's eponymous debut LP in the same magazine was "SHT". R.E.M.'s Mike Mills described early tours as "very Spinal Tap", citing, among other things, the fact that they had indeed played at a United States Air Force base. According to Harry Shearer in the Criterion edition DVD commentary, keyboard player John Sinclair had just returned from touring with Uriah Heep when principal photography was about to begin, and told them how they had been booked to play an air force base. They subsequently used the story in the film.
Canadian heavy metal band Anvil, whose drummer is named Robb Reiner, have been called "the real Spinal Tap" based on the misadventures depicted in their documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil.
In the Pearl Jam documentary Pearl Jam Twenty, the band members jokingly refer to the fact that while the core lineup of the group has remained unchanged (singer Eddie Vedder, guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard, bassist Jeff Ament), the band has had five drummers. The band members describe this as 'very Spinal Tap of us'. In the documentary a mock silent film called The Drummer Story is shown explaining what happened to their previous drummers. In the silent film, one of them is almost eaten by a sea monster, only to be rescued by Eddie Vedder, playing a lifeguard.
In 2008, Empire magazine ranked This Is Spinal Tap number 48 on its list of The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time. The New York Times also placed the film on their list of The Best 1000 Movies Ever Made. In January 2010, Total Film placed This Is Spinal Tap on its list of The 100 Greatest Movies of All Time. When Entertainment Weekly compiled their list of The 100 Greatest Movies of All Time, the publication included the film as "just too beloved to ignore". In 2011, Time Out London named it the best comedy film of all time.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in this list:2000: AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs – #29
On October 17, 2016, actor Harry Shearer filed a $125 million lawsuit against both StudioCanal, the successor in interest to Embassy Pictures, and Vivendi, which owns the studio. Shearer's lawsuit was specifically directed at StudioCanal by ordering the studio to terminate the copyright to This Is Spinal Tap so that Shearer would reclaim its rights. In February 2017, Shearer's co-stars Christopher Guest and Michael McKean, as well as the film's director Rob Reiner, joined the lawsuit against StudioCanal and Vivendi, seeking $400 million in damages. Additionally in the same month, Vivendi made an attempt to motion to the court to dismiss the case.
This Is Spinal Tap was first released on VHS in 1984 by Embassy Home Entertainment, and in 1994 as part of the Criterion Collection on LaserDisc under the title, This Is Spinal Tap: Special Edition. It has also been released twice on DVD.
The first DVD release was a 1998 Criterion edition in letterbox format which used supplemental material from the 1994 Criterion LaserDisc release. It is their only double sided DVD in their catalogue. It included an audio commentary track with Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer; a second audio commentary track with Rob Reiner, Karen Murphy, Robert Leighton and Kent Beyda; 79 minutes of deleted scenes; Spinal Tap: The Final Tour, the original twenty-minute short they shot to pitch the film; two trailers that feature Rob Reiner showing a film about cheese rolling (because "Spinal Tap" itself was still in the editing room); a TV promo, Heavy Metal Memories; and a music video for "Hell Hole". Sales of this edition were discontinued after only two years and the DVD has become a valuable collector's item. Much of this material had appeared on a 1994 CD-ROM by The Voyager Company that included the entire film in QuickTime format.
In 2000, MGM Home Entertainment released a special edition with more or less the same extras from the Criterion edition, plus a new audio commentary track with Guest, McKean and Shearer performing in character throughout, commenting on the film entirely in their fictional alter-egos, and often disapproving of how the film presents them; 70 minutes of deleted scenes (some of which were not on the Criterion DVD); a new short, Catching Up with Marty Di Bergi (where it is revealed that the members of Spinal Tap were very disappointed in Di Bergi for making a "hatchet job" of their film); the Heavy Metal Memories promo and six additional TV promos; music videos for "Gimme Some Money", "Listen to the Flower People" and "Big Bottom"; and segments of Spinal Tap appearing on The Joe Franklin Show. The special features were produced by Automat Pictures. However, this version of the film was missing the subtitles that appear throughout the film (for example, introducing band members, other personnel, and location names) and did not include the commentaries from the Criterion edition. The MGM DVD is missing the subtitles burned into the film; they have been replaced with player generated subtitles.
A 25th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray Disc release was released on July 28, 2009. It includes all bonus features from the MGM DVD plus an interview with Nigel about Stonehenge and Stonehenge from the band's Live Earth performance. It does not include the commentaries from the Criterion Collection DVD, even though MGM had stated that they would be included in the earliest press release for the Blu-ray version (most likely due to legal issues), and does not feature a "create your own avatars" element teased in publicity. However, this version does restore the subtitles that introduce band members/locales/events/etc. that were missing from MGM's DVD. The alternative, Region B, UK edition of this version additionally features a new hour-long documentary featuring famous fans, the "Bitch School" promo, the EPK for the "Back From The Dead" album, an interview with the late Reg Presley discussing the influence of the Troggs tapes on the film, and the first hour (ending with an abrupt edit) of The Return Of Spinal Tap. It does however lose the Di Bergi short and the Joe Franklin clip.
Harry Shearer, who played Derek Smalls, went on to become one of the main voice artists on The Simpsons, providing voices for Principal Skinner, Mr. Burns, Waylon Smithers, Ned Flanders and many others. Spinal Tap's members voiced cartoon versions of themselves in "The Otto Show", first playing on a concert attended by Bart and Milhouse which escalates into a riot after the band's early leave, then having their tour bus run off the road, apparently fatally, by Otto in the school bus.
A number of critics who normally rank media on a ten-point scale have modified their ratings to pay homage to the "Up to eleven" scene. The Internet Movie Database's ranking for This Is Spinal Tap is on a scale from one to eleven, although it is still only possible to choose a rating from one to ten. On IGN, This Is Spinal Tap was the only DVD—and seemingly the only thing reviewed on IGN—to get 11 out of 10. This scene was also used in some news reports on the death of James Charles "Jim" Marshall, founder of the famous amplifier company whose equipment is featured in the scene. Richard D. Titus, UX&D Controller for the BBC adopted a Spinal Tap inspired suggestion from a colleague that the BBC iPlayer should have a volume control that goes to eleven.
Outside the world of music, J. K. Rowling cited Spinal Tap's series of drummers as an inspiration for the Harry Potter series, in which something bad happens to every teacher of Defence against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts, causing them to leave the job without completing a full school year.Christmas With The Devil, 1984 follow-up single
Inside Spinal Tap (1985), a rare companion book by Peter Occhiogrosso. In 1992 this was revised and expanded exclusively for the UK market.
Break Like the Wind (1992) album
"The Otto Show", a 1992 episode of The Simpsons
A two-hour, made-for-TV sequel, The Return of Spinal Tap, was broadcast and released on video in 1992 to promote Break Like the Wind. It consisted mostly of footage from an actual Spinal Tap concert at the Royal Albert Hall. In it the "Stonehenge" joke from the original movie is referenced, as the new, large prop is instead too big to get into the venue.
This Is Spinal Tap: The Official Companion (ISBN 0-7475-4218-X) was published in 2000 to coincide. It featured a "Tapistory", full transcript of the film (including out-takes), a discography, lyrics and an A–Z of the band. This book largely recycles material from the Peter Occhiogrosso book and Criterion DVD commentaries.
Back from the Dead, 2009 album and DVD
Unplugged and Unwigged, 2009 live DVD of Guest, McKean, and Shearer performing songs from their various works