In 1984, director Rob Reiner came together with American comedians Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer to create something truly special in the form of This Is Spinal Tap, a classic mockumentary film which followed the antics and exploits of a fictional English heavy metal band named Spinal Tap.
The film takes a lighthearted, laugh-a-minute, behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to be in a rock and roll band, satirizing the behavior and parodying the pretensions of some of the biggest bands of the time. The film was a big critical success upon its release and became a cult classic as time went by. Here’s the fascinating story of how it all happened.
Putting the Band Together
Plenty of people played a part in the success of This Is Spinal Tap, but none of it would have been quite the same without the four main players: Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, and Rob Reiner. If a single one of those people was taken away, the film might never have happened or may not have been as big as it was.
And perhaps the most fascinating thing of all is that it was only by sheer coincidence that the four men managed to meet in the first place. McKean and Guest, for example, ended up going to the same New York college together and met in the ‘60s, only later meeting Shearer and Reiner when they were brought on to work on a TV pilot for a 1970s sketch comedy show.
Michael McKean Before Spinal Tap
Michael McKean was born in October of 1947 in New York City. He graduated high school in 1965 and had always had an interest in music and performance. In 1967, he even became a member of the baroque pop band, The Left Banke, playing on the band’s single, Ivy, Ivy.
He then went to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, studying alongside David Lander, whom he would soon work with as Lenny and Squiggy on Laverne & Shirley. These musical characters became really popular, helping McKean become a big name in comedy. It was around this time that he also met Christopher Guest, who played guitar on the Lenny and the Squigtones album, released in 1979.
Christopher Guest Before Spinal Tap
Christopher Guest was born on February 5 of 1948 in New York City. He was the son of a British diplomat and an American CBS casting executive. Because of this, he divided his childhood between the U.S. and the U.K. Like McKean, he also showed a keen interest in music from an early age, attending the High School of Music & Art in New York City and studying classical music in Massachusetts.
Guest learned how to play several instruments and began performing with bluegrass bands before moving into rock and roll. He also attended Bard College for a year and studied acting in New York. From there, he worked in theater and radio, moving into comedy with The National Lampoon Radio Hour.
Harry Shearer Before Spinal Tap
Born in December of 1943 in Los Angeles, Harry Shearer also had an active interest in music from an early age. He started learning the piano at the age of four, but as time went by, Shearer moved more into performance, acting, and comedy. He had several roles as a child and developed a bond with famed voice actor Mel Blanc, who would inspire Shearer for years to come.
In the ‘60s, Shearer planned to quit show business and started studying politics but gave up quite quickly and later joined a radio comedy group called The Credibility Gap, which also featured Michael McKean. In the ‘70s, he became a writer and cast member on SNL and developed connections with future Spinal Tap teammates Rob Reiner and Christopher Guest.
Rob Reiner was born in 1947 in New York City. His parents were Estelle Reiner, an actress, and Carl Reiner, a comedian, actor, and director, so he always seemed destined for a life in show business. He studied at the UCLA Film School and, in the ‘60s, began to appear in guest roles on TV shows like Batman and Room 222.
He had his big break as Michael Stivic on the ‘70s sitcom All in the Family, winning two Emmy Awards for his time on the show. Then, in the ‘80s, he started to move into directing, leading up to the creation of This Is Spinal Tap.
The Beginning of Something Special
Most Spinal Tap fans were introduced to the band via the 1984 film, but the group had actually appeared together on-screen before their feature-length debut. Back in 1979, Spinal Tap made its first appearance on an ABC sketch comedy pilot called The TV Show.
The TV Show was a short-lived project, headed up by Rob Reiner and Michael McKean. Part of the show was entitled “Rock ‘N’ Roll Nightmare” and designed to be a spoof of The Midnight Special. McKean, as well as Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer, appeared in the segment as the band Spinal Tap.
Bringing the Band Back Together
After Spinal Tap were featured for the first time in that original 1979 sketch, several years passed without any sight of the band. However, as time went by, Reiner and the band members started to develop their idea of a movie about Spinal Tap, as well as working on giving their original characters more personality and back-story.
Reiner contacted Marble Arch Productions to discuss the idea, acquiring $60,000 for himself, McKean, Guest, and Shearer to write a screenplay. They quickly realized that writing a traditional script wouldn’t really work for the style of comedy they were trying to make, so they decided to put together a short demo instead and shared it with various studios.
Several Studios Said No
There are many stories of famous films that turned out to be highly successful but almost didn’t get made, and This Is Spinal Tap is one of those movies. After making their demo, the group started to shop it around with several movie studios, hoping that someone would see what they were trying to do and give them a chance to make their movie.
However, studio after studio simply said no, rejecting the project entirely. The team had spent all their money on their 20-minute demo, but it wasn’t helping them acquire any funding. Fortunately, writer-producer Norman Lear eventually saw the demo and decided to fund the project himself.
A New Kind of Movie
The idea of the mock-documentary or mockumentary had been around before This Is Spinal Tap. We can look as far back as the 1930s for some examples of documentary-style pieces that were actually works of fiction, like the 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds.
The ‘60s and ‘70s introduced us to more mockumentary-style creations like All You Need Is Cash and Real Life. However, it was in the ‘80s, and specifically with the launch of This Is Spinal Tap, that the concept really took off. These days, the film is looked back on as the most famous and influential mockumentary of them all.
Rob Reiner Almost Didn’t Direct the Film
Before production began on This Is Spinal Tap, Rob Reiner wasn’t sure if he wanted to be the director of the project. He knew he wanted to be involved somehow but wasn’t sure if the directorial chair was right for him. So, at the time, Penelope Spheeris was offered the director’s job.
Spheeris had already worked on a genuine punk rock documentary in 1981 with The Decline of Western Civilization and had proven her directorial skills with 1983’s Suburbia too. However, she refused to work on Spinal Tap as she didn’t like the idea of making fun of rock music. Interestingly, she later made Wayne’s World, which was a total parody of rock culture.
A Lot of the Dialogue Was Improvised
One of the most interesting aspects of This Is Spinal Tap that a lot of fans don’t know is that much of the dialogue was actually unscripted. Letting the actors express themselves more organically, rather than simply following a script, is a big factor why the film feels more realistic and authentic.
The four main players – Reiner, Guest, McKean, and Shearer- all decided to speak with the Writers’ Guild and see if the whole cast could get credited for their work on the script since they made up most of it themselves. In the end, the Guild decided to allow the main four to be credited as writers, but nothing more.
The First Take Was Almost Always Used
Not only was the dialogue mostly improvised, but Reiner and his team also got into the habit of trying to use the first take for all the scenes they shot. As often as they possibly could, they made sure to try and nail a scene on the first take and use that take when cutting the final film together.
This was done to make the film feel even more authentic. The actors’ performances felt more dynamic and real on the first take, as it was their first time living through that scene and having natural reactions to what happened. On re-takes, their reactions wouldn’t always seem quite as natural, and Reiner wanted the film to feel as natural as possible.
The Whole Film Was Shot in L.A.
Shooting for This Is Spinal Tap took about five weeks in total, which is a relatively short period for any film, let alone one that didn’t have any real script to speak of. And even though the film features the band touring around and visiting various locations, it was all filmed in one place: Los Angeles.
The production team actually did quite an impressive job of disguising their sets to make the film feel as authentic as possible, and it’s hard to tell that they were in L.A. the whole time. However, there is one scene that shows the band leaving a “New York venue” that has palm trees outside it.
More Than 100 Hours of Footage Was Shot
Peter Smokler was the film’s cinematographer. Smokler had a lot of experience working on documentaries; he knew the right places to position the cameras in order to give the film its unique “cinema verité” style and make it look more realistic.
Thanks to Smokler’s presence, the film was shot just like a documentary, with no strict schedule or script to follow. This meant that more than 100 hours of footage ended up being filmed in total and had to be edited down by three separate editors in order to reach the final film’s 82 minutes run time.
The Film Had Some Interesting Inspirations
Several real-life musical documentaries influenced the making of This Is Spinal Tap, including Don’t Look Back, which was a 1967 documentary about Bob Dylan, and The Last Waltz, a 1978 documentary about The Band. However, there were also several more humorous influences connected to various scenes and sections of the final film too.
For instance, the scene where the band gets lost backstage was inspired by a real-life scenario in which Tom Petty got lost at a concert in Germany. Rob Reiner also went to a Judas Priest concert to prepare for the film and said that the music was so loud it actually hurt his chest and made him leave.
Christopher Guest Was Dedicated to Accuracy
Even though This Is Spinal Tap was supposed to be a lighthearted look at rock and roll bands, many of the people involved in its creation were dedicated to accuracy and authenticity. Christopher Guest was especially eager to ensure that the concert scenes looked as real as possible.
Guest was worried that the players’ finger positions on their instruments wouldn’t line up with the music being played. So, he actually demanded to re-shoot certain scenes after the first edit of the film to make sure his and his bandmates’ hands looked like they were really playing.
Jeanine Was Only Added Because of Unhappy Executives
As the film was being made, studio executives started to worry that it didn’t have any kind of plot or story to tie the scenes together. They worried that this would hurt the film’s appeal and wanted some changes to be made. So, in order to give the film more of a story, the character of Jeanine, David’s girlfriend, was added.
Jeanine adds some drama to the second half of the film, causing tensions between the group. Originally, the actress Victoria Tennant was considered for the role, but June Chadwick had better chemistry with the cast and strong improvisation skills, so she was better suited to the part.
R.J. Parnell Got Cast Due to His Own Musical Failings
One of the most famous scenes from This Is Spinal Tap is when the band is talking about all their drummers throughout history and how each one had died under strange circumstances. It’s clear that Spinal Tap drummers have a lot of bad luck, and real-life rock and roll drummer, R. J. Parnell, felt like he was the perfect fit for the role of the band’s new drummer, Mick Shrimpton, due to his own past.
During his audition, Parnell spoke to the casting directors about his own musical exploits, detailing all the failed bands he’d played for in the past. According to Parnell, as soon as he told the casting team that he used to be in a band called Atomic Rooster, they knew that he was the right man for the part.
Rob Reiner Originally Planned to Be in the Band
Rob Reiner wasn’t quite sure how he wanted to be involved in the film. Originally, he had plans to actually play the part of a member of the group. It was Harry Shearer who suggested that Reiner play the part of a fictional director, while also being the film’s actual director.
On the DVD commentary for the film, Reiner also revealed a little more about how he chose the name for his fictional director: Marty DiBergi. He created the name by combining the names of four famous directors: Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg, and Michelangelo Antonioni.
An Instant Success With the Critics
This Is Spinal Tap had to undergo a lot of editing and adjustments during production, but it was eventually released on March 2 of 1984 and became an instant hit with film critics. It got some of the best review ratings of any film released that year.
One of the world’s most famous film critics, the late Roger Ebert, awarded the film a top score of 4 stars out of 4, calling it “one of the funniest, most intelligent, most original films of the year.” Many other critics agreed with Ebert’s assessment, with Gene Siskel saying that the film was so well-made that many viewers might not be sure if the band was real or not.
Many Musicians Loved the Film Too
Lots of famous musicians were asked for their take on the film. The likes of Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and Dee Snider all loved it, saying that they related to many of the scenes, including the one where the band gets lost while trying to find the stage at a concert. Glenn Danzig, formerly of The Misfits, also said that “When I first saw Spinal Tap, I was like, ‘Hey, this is my old band’.”
In a 1992 interview with Nirvana, Dave Grohl and Kurt Cobain said that Spinal Tap was “the only rock movie worth watching.” Meanwhile, U2 guitarist The Edge stated that he “wept” the first time he saw Spinal Tap because he felt it was an accurate portrayal of how brainless a lot of rock bands actually were.
Not a Huge Commercial Hit
Even though the film performed really well with critics and got a lot of endorsements from real-life rock and roll musicians, it wasn’t a huge commercial hit at the time of its release. It was made on a budget of $2 million and did make a profit, earning $4.7 million at the box office, but it wasn’t a smashing success.
Many of the people who went to see the film at movie theaters were rock and roll fans, and the film didn’t appear to have a very broad appeal right away. However, over time, it gradually developed a cult following and more people started to see it after reading reviews and getting recommendations from friends and family.
A Real Rock Legend Thought the Band Was Real
At the time of This Is Spinal Tap’s release, many people who saw the film weren’t quite sure if it was real or not. The dialogue was very convincing, and the antics and style of the band also matched with a lot of real-life rock and roll and heavy metal bands of the time. One rock and metal legend even admitted that he thought the film was real.
Ozzy Osbourne, famed as one of the founding members of metal icons Black Sabbath, said that he didn’t laugh the first time he saw the film as he thought it was a very convincing, realistic portrayal of life as an ‘80s rock musician.
Regular Audiences Weren’t Sure If the Band Was Real
Ozzy Osbourne wasn’t the only one who was duped by the mockumentary style of This Is Spinal Tap. Many audience members went into the movie unsure about what they were going to see, and many people went home not quite knowing if the film was a real documentary that was unintentionally funny or a fictional comedy.
It’s important to remember that the film was released back in 1984, a time before the internet, so cinemagoers couldn’t simply look up the movie on Wikipedia or Google to find out all about it. Many people simply saw the title and booked their tickets based on that. Rob Reiner even had some fans tell him that they liked the film, but he should have picked a more famous band to do a documentary about.
One Cast Member Says the Film Saved His Life
Tony Hendra played the band’s manager, Ian Faith. He later revealed in his memoir that he actually attempted suicide the night before the film started shooting. He was suffering from severe depression at the time, but he said that the fun of working on the film helped to lift him out of his depressed state and saved his life.
Hendra was well-known for working on the British comedy show Spitting Image. He wrote several books and worked on a range of TV and films. He passed away in March of 2021 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The Film Inspired J. K. Rowling
This Is Spinal Tap went on to inspire a lot of people, from musicians to future mockumentary makers. But one of the more surprising and unexpected ways in which the film affected the world was by influencing Harry Potter author, J. K. Rowling.
In an interview, Rowling revealed that she took inspiration from the band when writing her Harry Potter books, specifically the various “Defense Against the Dark Arts” teachers at Hogwarts. In the books, these teachers never last a year and always end up leaving the job within a year. This was inspired by the drummers of Spinal Tap who repeatedly die during the band’s tours and concerts.
An Episode of the Simpsons Featured the Band
Spinal Tap appeared in other films and shows in various ways after the movie, including a 1992 episode of The Simpsons. The episode was the 22nd of the third season of the show, entitled The Otto Show, and mostly about the rock and roll-loving character of Otto Mann. At the start of the episode, Bart attends a Spinal Tap concert and decides he wants to become a rock star.
The concert only runs for 20 minutes due to a malfunctioning set of lasers, as well as other technical problems, in typical Spinal Tap fashion, and even ends in a riot. Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer (a regular Simpsons cast member) all appear in their usual band roles.
Awards and Accolades
This Is Spinal Tap is widely regarded as one of the best mockumentaries ever made and one of the finest comedy films overall too, earning various awards and accolades in honor of its status. In 2002, the film was selected to be preserved in the U.S. National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
In 2000, the film was recognized by the American Film Institute, earning the 29th spot in its 100 Years… 100 Laughs list. The New York Times has ranked the movie as one of the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made, with Empire giving it the 48th spot in the list of 500 Greatest Movies of All Time and Total Film also classing the film in its own Top 100.
Turn It Up to 11
One of the most famous moments from the film shows Nigel Tufnel proudly showing off the band’s amplifier, which has dials that turn up to 11, as opposed to the usual maximum limit of 10. Tufnel goes on to explain how the amp, therefore, allows the band to perform at a higher volume than anyone else.
After the film, real-life musicians actually started buying equipment with dials that went up to 11. Eddie Van Halen was one of the first to do this. In addition, the phrase “up to 11” began to be used throughout pop culture and has stood the test of time as one of the film’s most memorable pieces of dialogue.
Spinal Tap Became an Insult in the Rock World
Not only did the phrase “up to 11” become more widely used after the film, but in rock and roll circles, it started to become quite common for bands to poke fun at one another by being compared to Spinal Tap. It actually became quite a common insult for a band to be told that they were “just like Spinal Tap” or “funnier than Spinal Tap.”
Many musicians and bands also made humorous comments about their own Spinal Tap-esque tendencies. Mike Mills of R.E.M., for example, said that the band’s early tours were “very Spinal Tap” in their organization, while Marillion guitarist, Steve Rothery, compared his band to Spinal Tap after having five different drummers over the course of a single year.
The 1992 Reunion
After the movie, the band Spinal Tap disappeared for several years, but they arranged a “reunion” in 1992 to produce their album, Break Like the Wind. The album features a collection of tracks across different genres, from metal to skiffle.
The band also started touring to promote their album, playing in various locations around the world. During the tour, Spinal Tap played at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in London, as well as crossing five time zones in a single day on July 1 of 1992 for three performances in Newfoundland, Ontario, and British Columbia in Canada.
Since 1992, the band has reunited again several times. They came together in 2001 for a nine-city tour entitled “Back from the Dead” which had them performing in Los Angeles, New York, and Montreal. They also reunited in 2007 to combat global warming, playing at the London leg of the Live Earth concert series.
The band also released a new Back from the Dead album in 2009. This album was mostly made up of re-recordings of tracks from the film’s soundtrack. Also in 2009, the band announced a “world tour” that only actually involved one concert: a June 30 performance at London’s Wembley Arena.
A Legal Dispute
Spinal Tap made headlines in 2017 as Harry Shearer led a lawsuit against media company Vivendi, claiming that the company manipulated accounts data and ignored obligations in its contracts, denying Shearer, McKean, Guest, and Reiner their fair stake in the profits from the film.
The complaint argued that Vivendi had reported total profits of just $98 from soundtrack sales from the film, as well as $81 worth of merchandising sales. In reality, merchandise and music sales from the film worked out to tens of millions of dollars in revenue.
Settling the Dispute
Initially, Harry Shearer was the only one leading the legal charge against Vivendi, demanding a total of $125 million. Later on, his fellow Spinal Tap stars joined the lawsuit and upped the desired amount to $400 million. The suit dragged on for a few years before finally reaching a resolution.
In 2019, it was reported that the creators of This Is Spinal Tap had reached a settlement agreement with Universal Music over the dispute regarding the soundtrack. Then, in 2020, reports emerged to say that the group had also reached a settlement agreement with the Vivendi group and had begun the process of “restructuring the parties’ relationship and modifying contracts pertaining to the picture’s distribution.”
Harry Shearer Since Spinal Tap
After Spinal Tap, Harry Shearer progressed mostly into voice acting. He joined the cast of The Simpsons in 1989 and went on to become one of the show’s most prolific stars, providing voices for characters like Mr. Burns, Waylon Smithers, Principal Skinner, Ned Flanders, Reverend Lovejoy, Kent Brockman, formerly Dr. Hibbert, and more.
Shearer has also made appearances in other movies like The Truman Show and A Mighty Wind, as well as hosting his own public radio show, called Le Show, and writing several books. He’s an Emmy Award winner and continues to work on The Simpsons into its most recent seasons.
Michael McKean Since Spinal Tap
After Spinal Tap, Michael McKean continued to do a lot of work with Christopher Guest, winning a Grammy Award for his songwriting in the 2003 film A Mighty Wind and getting an Oscar nomination for his song, A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow too. He was also a cast member on SNL in the ‘90s.
In more recent times, Michael McKean has become popular with viewers for his role as Chuck McGill, the brother of Saul Goodman, on AMC’s Better Call Saul. He got a Primetime Emmy nomination for his appearance on the show and has also appeared in the comedy series, Breeders.
Christopher Guest Since Spinal Tap
In the same year This Is Spinal Tap was released, Christopher Guest celebrated his marriage to actress and writer, Jamie Lee Curtis. The pair got married at Rob Reiner’s home and are still together, raising two adopted daughters. Just a year after the film, Guest also became a cast member for SNL.
He went on to appear in various films and shows, famously as Count Rugen (the six-fingered man) in The Princess Bride. He later moved into directing and writing, creating films like The Big Picture, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration. Guest is also a member of the U.K. House of Lords, officially known as The Lord Haden Guest.
Rob Reiner Since Spinal Tap
After working on This Is Spinal Tap, Rob Reiner continued to direct several more successful movies, including The Princess Bride in 1987, Misery in 1990, The American President in 1995, and The Bucket List in 2007. Some of his most successful movies include When Harry Met Sally, Stand By Me, and A Few Good Men.
He has made appearances in his own movies and the films of others, notably appearing in the likes of Sleepless in Seattle and The Wolf of Wall Street. He has been nominated for many awards over the course of his career, including the Academy Award for Best Picture for A Few Good Men.
An Incredible Legacy
This Is Spinal Tap started off as a simple sketch idea but turned into something truly incredible. Together, Reiner, McKean, Guest, and Shearer created a hilarious yet authentic band with their own stories, histories, and personalities, while also making one of the most beloved cult comedy films of all time.
In the years since Spinal Tap’s release, the film has influenced countless comedians, musicians, and other performers. It has affected pop culture in many ways, and the band still gets back together now and then to remind the world about what it really means to “turn it up to 11.”