1984’s This Is Spinal Tap is one of the most well-known examples of the “Mockumentary” genre and pretty much started that genre all by itself. The film has gone down in history as a cult classic and is often quoted, especially when anyone wants to crank something up to 11!
Let’s take a look back at this beloved, hard-rocking comedy with some facts that you may not have known.
30. The Stonehenge scene predated a similar incident involving Black Sabbath
One of the many hilarious scenes in This Is Spinal Tap is the Stonehenge sequence, in which a set designer (Anjelica Huston) builds a replica of the legendary monument based on a sketch from the band. Unfortunately, the sketch provided gives the proportions in inches rather than feet, hence the band end up playing alongside a miniature Stonehenge on stage.
This scene was originally shot in 1982 for a short film which helped the filmmakers get a green light for the feature – but a year later, a bizarrely similar thing happened in real life to Black Sabbath. The heavy metal legends commissioned a Stonehenge replica for their 1983 tour, but it wound up the wrong size: in their case, it was more than twice as big as the real monument.
29. Ozzy Osbourne thought it was a genuine documentary
The funny thing that a lot of people don’t seem to realise about This is Spinal Tap is that it isn’t an actual documentary. On release, many viewers were so taken in by the film’s realistic style that they thought it starred an actual English rock band, and not a bunch of American comedians, and to this day plenty of people seem to think Spinal Tap were for real.
One of the true pioneers of heavy metal music, Ozzy Osborne, was completely suckered by the film. The Black Sabbath frontman said that when he first watched the film, he was the only one who wasn’t laughing as he thought it was a genuine documentary. Other rock superstars said to have been similarly fooled include Liam Gallagher of Oasis.
28. The tiny sandwich scene was inspired by Eddie Van Halen
The key reason that a lot of rock stars initially didn’t see the humour in This Is Spinal Tap was that the band’s behaviour seemed totally normal to them. Reportedly one such rocker who had this problem when watching the movie was the late guitar hero Eddie Van Halen. There was a certain irony there, as – although he might not have known it – the guitarist and his bandmates directly inspired one scene.
The scene in question comes when Christopher Guest’s Nigel starts throwing a tantrum over the backstage buffet, bewildered by the size of the bread. This, director Rob Reiner confirmed years later, was inspired by Van Halen’s infamous demand for bowls of M&Ms with all the brown ones taken out in the backstage area of every venue they played.
27. The black record cover inspired Metallica’s ‘Black’ album
Another of This is Spinal Tap’s most famous gags comes when the band face trouble over the artwork on their latest album, prompting manager Ian (Tony Hendra) to choose a plain black cover. He hopes this will ensure great publicity and high sales, but things don’t work out that way. However, in 1991, heavy metal legends Metallica would take direct inspiration from this, to considerably greater success.
While the record in question (the band’s fifth album) is officially entitled Metallica, it is popularly known as The Black Album. This, of course, is because the band given the record a completely black cover, in homage to Spinal Tap. The album became Metallica’s biggest hit, earning Diamond Record status with over 16 million copies sold in America alone.
26. The dying drummers inspired Harry Potter’s Defence Against the Dark Arts teachers
This Is Spinal Tap has famously inspired scores of comedians and rock musicians over the years. However, it may come as a surprise that it was also the inspiration behind a recurring element of the Harry Potter series. One of This Is Spinal Tap’s running gags is the unfortunate fates of its many drummers, who all die in mysterious circumstances.
Harry Potter author JK Rowling has confirmed that this joke inspired a similarly dangerous job in her series of novels: Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts, a role taken by a new teacher in every book. Most of those who teach this subject either end up dead or are in some way rendered unable to return by the novel’s end.
25. Spinal Tap reunited for an album and TV special in 1992
Eight years after This Is Spinal Tap, the band got back together for a second album entitled Break Like the Wind. Once again Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer took up their instruments as Nigel, David and Derek. Guest musicians on the record included legendary guitar heroes Slash, Jeff Beck, Steve Lukather and Joe Satriani, and iconic singer Cher.
The band toured in support of the album, including a performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall, which was filmed and broadcast as one-off TV special The Return of Spinal Tap. Spinal Tap have since reunited once more to record a third album, 2009’s Back from the Dead. We can expect more Spinal Tap in the future, as a follow-up film has been announced for the film’s 40th anniversary in 2024.
24. The film was almost entirely improvised
Today, heavy improvisation is commonplace in film comedy thanks to such directors as Judd Apatow and Paul Feig. This Is Spinal Tap was a breakthrough film in the use of improvisation in comedy. The film was shot based around a script for a short film which would have lasted a mere 20 minutes.
Using this as the starting point, director Rob Reiner and the cast ad-libbed virtually everything else. For this reason, the director and cast approached the Writers Guild asking that they allow screenplay credit to be given to “everyone.” Guild rules would not allow this, so credit went just to Reiner, Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Christopher Guest.
23. The cast wrote and performed all the music themselves
Spinal Tap might not in the strictest sense a ‘real’ band but Christopher Guest (guitarist/vocalist Nigel Tufnel), Michael McKean (guitarist/vocalist David St. Hubbins) and Harry Shearer (bassist Derek Smalls) really do play all their own instruments in the film. In addition, Guest, McKean and Shearer co-wrote all of the songs, along with director Rob Reiner.
Supporting actors David Kaff (keyboard player Viv Savage) and Ric Parnell (drummer Mick Shrimpton) also played their instruments for real: both men were professional musicians. Guest, McKean and Shearer also served as the producers on the officially released soundtrack album featuring the songs from the movie.
22. Rob Reiner was originally going to be in the band, but he didn’t look good in spandex
Director Rob Reiner stars in This Is Spinal Tap as documentarian Marty DiBergi, but this wasn’t always the plan. At first, the plan had been for Reiner to also be a member of Spinal Tap as well. However, Derek Smalls actor Harry Shearer reportedly told Reiner that he didn’t look good enough in spandex.
For this reason, the director opted instead take the role of the more casually-dressed documentary maker. Reiner had been a successful actor for many years before he made the move into directing, most famously appearing in sitcom All in the Family.
21. There was a Spinal Tap Christmas single
No self-respecting musical comedy act can really say they’ve made it until they’ve put out a novelty Christmas record. Spinal Tap did just that in December 1984 with their first official single, Christmas with the Devil. The single was released as a picture disk 7 inch with an image of the Devil in a Santa Claus hat.
Unfortunately, This Is Spinal Tap was not much of a hit on release, taking only $4.7 million at the box office (although this easily recouped its $2 million budget). This might explain why Christmas with the Devil didn’t chart at all in 1984, although it has been included as a bonus track on subsequent releases of This Is Spinal Tap’s soundtrack.
20. Penelope Spheeris (Wayne’s World) turned down the chance to direct
This Is Spinal Tap was the directorial debut of Rob Reiner, and set him on a path to become one of the most successful filmmakers of the years ahead. Reiner went on to direct such acclaimed hits as Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, Misery and A Few Good Men. However, he wasn’t always poised to direct This Is Spinal Tap himself. Early on, the director’s chair was offered to Penelope Spheeris.
A confirmed rock aficionado, Spheeris turned down This Is Spinal Tap, feeling she couldn’t make a movie that made fun of the culture she so respected. Later, Spheeris would have her biggest hit with another rock’n’roll-oriented comedy, Wayne’s World.
19. Fran Drescher revived her character on an episode of The Nanny
One of the many famous faces who make brief appearances in This Is Spinal Tap is Fran Drescher. Drescher appears in the movie as record company executive Bobbi Fleckman, who warns of trouble concerning the band’s planned cover art. The actress and comedian, famed for her nasal voice, would later reach a wide audience in 90s sitcom The Nanny.
In the fifth season of The Nanny, one episode saw Drescher play her This Is Spinal Tap character a second time. The episode in question was entitled The Bobbi Fleckman Story. Drescher’s dual role in the episode saw her regular character of Fran Fine (the nanny of the title) forced to pretend to be Bobbi Fleckman.
18. More than 100 hours of footage was shot
Because This Is Spinal Tap relied so heavily on improvisation, vast quantities of raw footage was shot. It is estimated that a staggering 100 hours worth of material was on film by the time they wrapped shooting. Given that the final film is only 82 minutes long, that means there’s a whole lot more out there we haven’t seen.
Some of this deleted footage showed up on the film’s first DVD release in 1998, which boasted around an hour of new material. There are also known to be bootleg copies of an early cut of the film lasting upwards of four hours. These rare and coveted cuts of the film have been known to fetch a pretty penny among hardcore fans.
17. Working on the film saved the life of actor Tony Hendra
Tony Hendra takes a key supporting role in This Is Spinal Tap as Ian Faith, the band’s cricket bat-wielding manager. The English-born actor and writer was struggling with depression just before This Is Spinal Tap went into production, and actually attempted to take his own life the day before he was set to start filming.
Working on This Is Spinal Tap was such a joyful, life-affirming experience that it helped Hendra on the road to recovery. Unfortunately, this heartwarming story doesn’t have such a happy ending: In the years since, Hendra’s daughter has publicly accused her father of abusing her as a child. He has since passed away, in March 2021.
16. Spinal Tap went on to appear in The Simpsons, in which Harry Shearer is a main cast member
Five years after This Is Spinal Tap, Harry Shearer was cast in a new animated comedy series called The Simpsons. The show proved wildly successful beyond everyone’s expectations, and it’s still on the air today. Shearer continues to voice several recurring characters, including Ned Flanders, Mr Burns, Smithers and Principal Skinner.
In 1992, Shearer added Derek Smalls to his long list of Simpsons voice credits in season three episode The Otto Show. Christopher Guest and Michael McKean also reprised the roles of Nigel Tufnel and David St. Hubbins in the episode, which saw Spinal Tap perform a riotous gig in the town of Springfield, with Bart and Millhouse in attendance.
15. The film’s first VHS included a disclaimer that it wasn’t a real documentary
This is Spinal Tap’s ‘mockumentary’ format was ground-breaking for the time, and has inspired many films since. However, as we’ve mentioned it was the cause of much confusion among the wider audience who assumed it was for real. Some confused viewers even suggested to director Rob Reiner that the film might have been better if he’d got a more famous band!
Because of this, some early VHS copies of the film had a disclaimer printed on the cover, making it clear to the uninitiated viewer that the film is in fact a work of fiction. While the cast have continued to explore the format (with Christopher Guest directing a series of hits in the format), Rob Reiner has not made another ‘mockumentary’ since.
14. Rob Reiner and the cast launched a $400 million lawsuit over unpaid royalties in 2016
In October 2016, This Is Spinal Tap actor and co-writer Harry Shearer sued Vivendi, the media group owning the rights to the movie, for $125 million. Three months later Shearer’s collaborators Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Rob Reiner joined him in the suit, with the demanded sum increasing to $400 million.
The filmmakers alleged fraud, saying they had been paid a paltry $98 in royalties for album sales between 1989 and 2006. Initially, the suit demanded that StudioCanal (the film studio owned by Vivendi) surrender the rights to This Is Spinal Tap. The legal battle is ongoing, but the section of the suit relating to the soundtrack was settled out of court in November 2019.
13. Marti DiBergi’s cap appears in Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride
This is Spinal Tap director Rob Reiner appears in the film as Marti DiBergi, the ‘director’ of the faux-documentary. Throughout the film, Reiner wears a distinctive US Navy cap – which, three years later, would appear in his later film The Princess Bride. Look closely in the scenes set in Fred Savage’s bedroom, and you may spot the cap in the background.
Reiner included this at the behest of Mark Knopfler, guitarist of famed 80s rock band Dire Straits, who agreed to provide the score for The Princess Bride on the condition that Reiner’s Spinal Tap cap would appear in the film. The director made good on this (using a cap that closely resembled it, as the original had been lost). Afterwards, Knopfler admitted this slightly absurd request had only been a joke!
12. It was marketed in Norway as a sequel to Airplane!
As we’ve established, This Is Spinal Tap proved to be a somewhat difficult film to market on its initial release. This proved to be even more of a challenge when selling the film to markets around the world. In Norway, the marketing people came up with a rather different way of selling the film when it was released to VHS there in 1986.
The film was retitled Help! We are in the Pop Business! This was a reference to the Norwegian title for mile-high slapstick Airplane!, which was Help! We are Flying! The VHS cover art also featured a guitar tied in a knot, just like Airplane!’s titular vehicle. Of course, in reality Airplane! spawned a genuine sequel of its own, 1982’s Airplane II: The Sequel.
11. The film’s IMDb rating goes up to 11
One of the most famous jokes in This Is Spinal Tap involves the Marshall amplifier owned by guitarist Nigel Tufnel. Where most amplifiers have ten as the maximum setting, Tufnel’s extra-loud amp goes instead to 11. This scene proved so impactful that ‘going up to eleven’ has long since become part of the popular vernacular.
It also explains why, at renowned film information website IMDb, the fan rating score for This Is Spinal Tap is a little different. Where all other film pages offer a fan rating out ten, This Is Spinal Tap’s rating goes – yes, you guessed it – to 11. However, despite this crowd-pleasing joke, fans can still only give the film a rating out of ten. (Spoilsports!)
10. Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler took personal offence to the film
Plenty of real-life rock stars love This is Spinal Tap, but one rock icon entirely failed to see the funny side. Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler was outright offended by the film, complaining, “That movie bummed me out… I thought, how dare they? That’s all real, and they’re mocking it.”
Tyler’s bandmate Joe Perry told Classic Rock, “my wife and I saw it, and we fell on the floor… I told Steven the next day, ‘You’ve got to see this movie! It’s so f***ing good. It’s hilarious.’” However, when Perry took Tyler to see it, “he did not laugh the whole time… he didn’t get it. He got indignant. And it was like, I couldn’t believe it.”
9. Harry Shearer toured with British metal band Saxon for research
One of the real-life bands to have the greatest influence on This Is Spinal Tap are Brit rockers Saxon. These heavy metallers rose to prominence around the same time as Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, although they’re not quite so well known today. Before production began on This Is Spinal Tap, Harry Shearer spent a few days on tour with Saxon as research.
Saxon’s bassist Steve Dawson recalls, that the band thought Shearer “was just another journalist… [he] got us to talk about things that happened on the road.” Shearer modelled elements of Derek Smalls on Dawson, in particular imitating his tendency to play bass one-handed whilst pointing at the audience.
8. A deleted subplot saw the band all catch an STD from the same woman
If you watch closely, you may notice that at different times in This Is Spinal Tap, the band members appear to have cold sores. In the version of the film that we’ve all seen, this passes without any comment or explanation. However, a subplot which was deleted in its entirety would have made the situation clear as day.
Originally, we would have seen that Spinal Tap had another band opening for them on tour with a female vocalist. It then transpired that all of the band had slept with this woman, and that she gave them all the same STD. We can only assume this is one of the plot threads that is restored in the fabled four-hour-plus bootleg cut.
7. The band first appeared in a failed 1979 comedy pilot
Like so many of the best comedies of the 80s and 90s, the characters of This Is Spinal Tap had their origins on the small screen. Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Rob Reiner came up with the characters in 1978, for the pilot episode of a proposed comedy sketch series entitled The TV Show.
Ultimately, The TV Show did not get picked up for a series, although it did air as a one-off special. However, the creators were excited by the potential of Spinal Tap, and began exploring the idea of a movie.
6. The cast have made several other ‘mockumentaries’ since Tap
In the years since This Is Spinal Tap, actor Christopher Guest has gone on to direct many films in a similar, semi-improvised style. Guest returned to the musical mockumentary format as co-writer, director and star of 1996’s Waiting for Guffman. The actor-director explored similar territory with Best In Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration.
Guest also appears in front of the camera on all these films, and some reunited him with his fellow Spinal Tap veterans. Michael McKean appears in Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration, whilst Harry Shearer is in the latter two. These films also co-star Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy, who have since reunited on acclaimed sitcom Schitt’s Creek.
5. ‘Nigel Tufnel’ was a play on Eric Clapton’s ‘dull’ name
Before This Is Spinal Tap went before cameras, Christopher Guest played as Nigel Tufnel on 1979 comedy album Lenny & Squiggy present Lenny and the Squigtones. Guest explained years later that the main inspiration behind the name Nigel Tufnel came from a real-life guitar hero: British rock legend Eric Clapton.
Nigel Tufnel was conceived as a play on Eric Clapton, Christopher Guest’s rationale being that it should be a combination of a ‘dull’ first name and a location in London.
4. Christopher Guest has called the film a ‘spomage’
This Is Spinal Tap is frequently held up as one of the greatest parodies ever put on film. However, the filmmakers have always disputed that the film is 100% a spoof of the rock world. Christopher Guest told The Washington Post when the film was released that it was a “spomage” – i.e. midway between spoof and homage.
Guest explained, “We do have great affection, not only for the music… but for those people.” Rob Reiner agreed, “The four of us all grew up on rock ‘n’ roll, we all love rock ‘n’ roll. Most of the satires that have been done in the past have been by people who didn’t really like rock ‘n’ roll… they didn’t have the affection.”
3. Spinal Tap’s numerous previous names were inspired by those of The Band
One standout scene early on sees Spinal Tap reflect on the years in the music business, with flashbacks to the early days playing British Beat and psychedelic rock. Along with that, David and Nigel list the many names they went by over the years, including The Lovely Lads, The Originals, The New Originals and The Thamesmen.
This sequence was directly inspired by a similar (but entirely non-satirical) moment in Martin Scorsese’s famed ‘rockumentary’ The Last Waltz, which centres on famed folk rockers The Band. The film sees them list some of the many names they had previously used, including The Hawks, The Canadian Squires, Chocolate Subway and Marshmallow Overcoat.
2. The band played Big Bottom at 2007’s Live Earth with “every bass player in the known universe”
One of the best-loved songs from the soundtrack of This Is Spinal Tap has to be Big Bottom. Notable for its self-consciously sexist lyrics, the song (inspired by Queen’s Fat Bottomed Girls) is played on multiple basses with no guitar. In live performances, Spinal Tap have taken advantage of this by having special guest bass players join them on stage.
The most spectacular such performance occurred at the 2007 Live Earth climate change awareness concert at Wembley Stadium. Virtually every bassist at Live Earth joined them to play bass on Big Bottom, including (amongst many others) Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch of the Beastie Boys, Nate Mendel of the Foo Fighters, and all the members of Metallica.
1. The film reduced Sting and The Edge to tears (and not just from laughter)
For the average viewer, This Is Spinal Tap is a comedy classic that’s always guaranteed to elicit laughs. However, some rock stars were so struck at how realistically it portrays the absurdities of the rock star life that watching the film proved somewhat traumatic.
Rob Reiner stated in 2019, “Sting saw it many times – he told me, ‘I see it now, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry!’” Similarly, The Edge of U2 says, “The first time I ever saw it, I didn’t laugh. I wept… because I recognised so much and so many of those scenes.”