When it came out in 1984, “This Is Spinal Tap” convinced many people they were watching a genuine documentary about a clueless heavy metal band. “We showed it in Dallas,” recalls Christopher Guest, who played fictional axe man Nigel Tufnel. “There were these two girls in front of us, who said to each other, ‘These guys are so stupid. Why would they make movie about them?’”
But the world caught on and a genre of comedy was born. Thirty years later it’s considered a bonafide classic and will be honored in a screening Oct. 8 (followed by a Q&A with Guest) at the New York Film Festival.
Directed by Rob Reiner and starring Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, “Spinal Tap” isn’t just a send-up of pompous metal bands, it’s an unblinking portrait of awkwardness and a masterpiece of improvisation.
“(McKean) and I had been playing music for 20 years,” says Guest. “And we liked doing characters. We were gonna write this, and then we figured we couldn’t write it … so we just started shooting it.”
Reiner filmed 20 minutes of improvised material — meanwhile, their original funder folded. “We took the 20 minutes around to various studios,” Guest says. “They all said, ‘I don’t understand what this is supposed to be.’ We said, ‘It’s supposed to be a comedy.’ They said, ‘Well, it isn’t … so please leave.’ ”
Producer Norman Lear saved the day, and (for $2 million) Reiner and company made their film — full of sincerely delivered songs like “Sex Farm” and “Big Bottom” performed by the cast. They gathered 50 hours of completely improvised footage, which Reiner whittled down to 82 minutes.
“Someone coined the term ‘mockumentary’ against all our wishes, because it’s a little cheesy,” Guest says. “It’s a movie done in a documentary style. And somehow it holds up.”