Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Tonight They're Gonna Rock You

Films: This is Spinal Tap; Anvil! The Story of Anvil
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

The deathbed utterance “Dying is easy; comedy is hard” has been attributed to at least half a dozen people. Regardless of who said it, there’s truth in that sentiment. I would add that in terms of comedy, the most difficult comedy to do well is parody. Parody runs a fine line. Go too far and it comes across as stupid; don’t go far enough, and it doesn’t come across as parody. Anyone interested in creating parody should take a very close look at Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap. This film, chronicling the American tour of one of England’s loudest bands, is so pitch perfect in terms of being just this side of believability. A couple of minor tweaks, and Spinal Tap could be a real band at the end of their career.

The film is a self-styled “rockumentary” created by Marty DeBergi (Rob Reiner) who learns that British metal group Spinal Tap is heading to the U.S. for a tour to promote its latest album, Smell the Glove. So DeBergi heads out with the group to see what a tour and album release is like. The band consists (initially) of five members: David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer), Viv Savage (David Kaff), and Mick Shrimpton (R.J. Parnell).

It becomes pretty evident right away that Spinal Tap is, for lack of a better way to describe them, a terrible band. They’re quick to jump onto whatever looks to be the latest trend, starting as a skiffle group, toying with feel-good psychedelia, and ultimately ending as a leather and mildly evil-obsessed metal band cranking out tunes about sex and faux mysticism. As the tour progresses, the group suffers a series of setbacks with cancellations, an album that won’t be released thanks to its lurid and sexist cover, and eventually a road manager (Tony Hendra, sporting the awesome rock name Ian Faith) who’s simply had enough and walks away.

The band tries everything it can to promote itself and get fans excited, and true to form, everything ends disastrously. Stage props get stuck, trapping band members inside, the group gets lost behind the stage, and eventually, they create a Stonehenge monument as set dressing that looks more at home in a child’s diorama than on a stage. Things are further complicated by the arrival of David’s girlfriend Jeanine (June Chadwick), who is obviously despised by Nigel. As the tour winds down, the remaining members consider their options and decide that perhaps the best part of valor here is to simply walk away and pursue other things…but is there perhaps a glimmer of hope at fleeting fame in the distance? Now if they could get past the fact that their drummers seem to keep dying…

This is Spinal Tap works for any number of reasons, but it’s the members of the band, especially McKean, Guest, and Shearer, who really sell this film. The three of them play these parts so close to reality that it almost seems like they could be in earnest, but just off enough that they come across as ridiculous. It’s an almost flawless parody in that respect. The songs are masterpieces of bad songwriting and great comedy. It’s entirely possible that someone not in on the joke would accept Spinal Tap as a real band that just isn’t that good at songwriting.

The film is ably helped by a huge number of tremendous cameo appearances—Bruno Kirby, Ed Begley Jr., Fran Drescher (not annoying for once), Billy Crystal, Howard Hesseman, Fred Willard, Paul Shaffer, and even Angelica Huston all show up for a few minutes—all recognizable and all great in their tiny roles. They sell the film as much as anyone else.

I can’t say enough about this film. I loved it when it was shiny and new, and I love it now. I like the characters, who are played perfectly. I like the songs. Most of all, I like the situations that these poor guys are put into and have to deal with. As I said at the top of this post, This is Spinal Tap is parody at its best. There are scenes in this (Stonehenge, Nigel’s piano piece, Derek’s cucumber in his pants, the pod that doesn’t open, “Hello, Cleveland!”) and lines (“These go to 11,” “Lick My Love Pump”) that will continue to be referenced for years to come.

So if This is Spinal Tap is a near-perfect parody of a failed rock band that doesn’t quite make it, who does one react when the story of Spinal Tap becomes a reality without the parody and with a lot more pathos? Sit down to watch Anvil! The Story of Anvil, and that’s exactly what you’re going to get. Anvil was (and in many ways still is) the original beating heart of thrash metal, but unless you’ve seen this film, you probably haven’t heard of them. I’m not trying to go all hipster on you here; I’m stating the truth. Anvil is cited as an influence and/or an equal by such bands as Metallica and Anthrax, but the two guys who started the band and have been in it for 30 years now work jobs like delivering food for a catering service.

Our two heroes are Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner (the extra “b” keeps him differentiated from the director of Spinal Tap) who are the creative heart behind the band. Kudlow is the guitar player, singer, and front man while Reiner plays the drums. Also in the band are long-time Anvil fans bassist Glenn Five and guitarist Ivan Hurd. Kudlow works for a catering business, and the band—in some ways attempting to relive the glory days of the 80s when they were an up-and-coming sensation—still performs. In fact, Kudlow’s philosophy seems to reflect a sort of upbeat pessimism. He says, essentially, that things won’t get any worse than what they are, and if they do, he’s at least got what he’s got.

Things appear to turn around when he is contacted by a woman named Tiziana Arrigoni who wants Anvil to come to Europe for a five-week tour. Things go well at first, but quickly devolve into something entirely too reminiscent of Spinal Tap. Venues turn out to be tiny, crowds are sparse, advertising doesn’t happen, trains are missed. By the end of the tour, Anvil plays at a venue in Transylvania. The auditorium seats 10,000. Only 174 people show up.

The end result of this disastrous tour is that the band has made no money, and since they all took five weeks off from their jobs, they’re now behind. Bassist Glenn Five is essentially homeless, while guitarist Ivan Hurd is behind on his mortgage. Ultimately, two things of note happen on the tour. First, Hurd marries Arrigoni. Second, despite all of the problems, Kudlow remains positive and is grateful for the experience. Seriously, he’s the most upbeat guy ever.

Now, with everyone in dire financial straits, Kudlow has the brilliant idea of cutting the band’s thirteenth album with Chris Tsangarides. Producing the album will take thousands of dollars, which Kudlow tries to earn with a second job. Eventually, he gets the money loaned by his sister, and through a second mortgage on his house. So the album gets made, and no record company wants to touch it, another kick to the groin for the hardworking band. Nothing seems to work for them no matter how hard they try. At one point, just as Nigel leaves the band in Spinal Tap, Reiner walks away from the recording session of the new album, leaving his long time partner alone and attempting to keep the band working.

But this is still not the end of this short film. Another tour opportunity appears. After this many years, do they make one more attempt?

I’m not a metal fan, and I’ve never been one. I’ll never be one. But I love these guys. I genuinely like these guys, and this movie as absolutely heartbreaking. It’s funny, it’s sad, and it’s very very real. These two guys deserve a bite of the apple, and as a person watching this film, I want them to have it. This film, just as their music is to them, is a labor of love, a piece of true passion and dedication and faith and love.

It’s strange to me that what is so entertaining and funny in one film is so terribly tragic in the next. There’s a thin line between stupid and clever as the members of Spinal Tap say. There’s also a thin line between comedy and tragedy.

Why to watch This is Spinal Tap: Because few films are this funny.
Why not to watch: Because they’ve got armadillos in their trousers.

Why to watch Anvil! The Story of Anvil: There’s no joy like cheering for an underdog.
Why not to watch: Seeing someone’s dreams get crushed sucks.


  1. I would like to recommend "Fear Of A Black Hat". A Spinal Tap style mockumentary directed at the rap industry.

  2. With these two films, i'm not sure if there is a better example of "Art imitating life and life imitating art". Nice reviews!

  3. It really is amazing how similar they are--up to and including heading to Japan. But really, it's almost as if Anvil styled their career after Spinal Tap, or as if Anvil is a parody of the earlier film.

    A great film, nonetheless. Actually, both are great films.

    @Ken: I'll look for it.

  4. I'm really knocking out the documentaries lately. I've still got a bunch from TCM's special documentary month. And when I was looking to see which films were available from the San Bernardino County Library's system, I saw that they have one copy of Anvil! The Story of Anvil. And I put in a request because I remembered your write-up and I thought it sounded interesting. Plus, it's only 85 minutes.

    Great movie! I'm not really a heavy metal fan, but I'm intrigued by what we hear on this movie. They seem to have a few songs that meander outside the usual metal subjects. (Which, come to think of it, might be part of the reason they've never been big.)

    Another part of the problem is that heavy metal is a thing of the past. I'm sure diehard fans can dispute that with bands that still tour and put out albums. But that's missing the point that heavy metal is not the big deal it was in the 1980s.

    Twenty or thirty years from now, there should be a follow-up film about Anvil, still at it, playing at community centers and retirement homes. And I'll still be rooting for them to get their big break.

    1. Anvil: The Story of Anvil is a hard film not to like. The guys are easy to root for, even if you're not a fan of the music. In that respect, it reminds me of a film like I am Trying to Break Your Heart, where it really is about the music and not about anything else.