For the creators of This Is Spinal Tap, the satiric mock documentary detailing the exploits of a fictitious heavy-metal band, the line between life and art has been getting blurry of late. The other night, for example, this band that doesn’t really exist was playing at a Los Angeles club called the Music Machine. The place was packed, jammed with the black-leather-and-spikes crowd. “I walked in the club and people started yelling, ‘Nigel.’ They had these weird, crazed looks on their faces. ‘Nigel! Nigel’s here!”‘
The preppie-looking, short-haired speaker is not, in fact, named Nigel. He’s not really in a rock band, either. He is thirty-six-year-old Christopher Guest, and like his costars in This Is Spinal Tap — thirty-six-year-old Michael McKean, forty-year-old Harry Shearer and thirty-seven-year-old Rob Reiner — he’s an actor, scriptwriter and comedian. All the same, when he picks up his guitar and dons his stringy shag wig and tight silver spandex pants to become the flaky Jeff Beck lookalike known as Nigel Tufnel, the heavy-metal kids flip out.
Like the time they were shooting some concert footage for the movie: “While we were playing, several girls latched onto Harry’s leg in the dog-in-heat manner,” said Guest, who’s been parodying rock & roll since his days with the National Lampoon comedy troupe in the early Seventies. “And on two occasions, girls ripped open their shirts — bare breasts — and were looking up going, ‘I love you, I love you.’ It was very bizarre.”
“It’s life imitating art,” said Spinal Tap director Rob Reiner, who played Meathead in TV’s All in the Family.
“The closer we dared to get to the real thing, the closer the real thing dared to get to us,” added Shearer, a former Saturday Night Live cast member who plays Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls. “It’s like reality is calling our bluff at every stop along the way.”
There’s no reason why Spinal Tap couldn’t be a real heavy-metal band. Shearer, Guest and McKean have perfected the look, sound and attitude of heavy metal. And as they sat in the Beverly Hills home of their publicist, they showed they’ve even mastered the heavy-metal way of talking.
“We had this Iron Maiden interview from NME [the British music paper],” said McKean, whose best-known role was as Lenny in Laverne & Shirley and whose Spinal Tap character is the blond, curly-haired guitarist and lead vocalist, David St. Hubbins. “It was incredible. The guy is saying things like” — McKean slipped into his English-rock-star voice — “‘Well, we like to view ourselves like we’re troubadours, you know. From the ancient days of song. Wandering around the countryside. . . .'”
“It was an interview,” added Shearer, “that asked all the questions that you’d want to ask one of those people. ‘Isn’t this the most stupid music known to man?'”
“‘Well, it’s not as easy as that, is it?'” said Guest, in character. “‘It’s not a yes-and-no question, is it?'”
This Is Spinal Tap takes the rock & roll world in all its pompous glory and manages to poke fun at almost every aspect of it. Record-company presidents, publicists, promo men, managers and even critics are all affectionately skewered. The movie — a collaboration between Reiner, Guest, Shearer and McKean — was made for less than $3 million. Shot with hand-held cameras in 16 millimeter (and later blown up to 35 millimeter), This Is Spinal Tap was improvised as the film rolled. As a result, the movie has the look, feel and spontaneity of a real rock documentary. “The documentary form lent itself to the exposure of the self-important,” said McKean.