This is Spinal Tap may not have invented the mockumentary genre, but it certainly popularized it. Released 30 years ago, Rob Reiner’s cult classic comedy—which starred Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer—turned the fictional heavy metal band of its title into bona fide musical superstars. It also called into question what the exact dimensions of an on-stage Stonehenge should be. Here are 15 things you might not know about the 1984 film.
1. THIS IS SPINAL TAP WASN’T AN IMMEDIATE HIT.
Like Smell the Glove, the new album that the band is promoting in the film, This Is Spinal Tap didn’t immediately find its audience. In preview screenings, some viewers complained about the camerawork, offering up such feedback as “Too shaky. Get new cameraman.” It wasn’t until the film was released on home video that it truly found its audience; it has since gone on to garner loads of critical acclaim. In 2011, Time Out London named This is Spinal Tap the Best Comedy of All Time, noting that “It’s sublimely funny and sharp—a comedy built for the long haul which matures with each viewing.” Entertainment Weekly, Empire, The New York Times, and the American Film Institute have all singled the film out in similar lists.
2. MANY VIEWERS BELIEVED IT WAS AN ACTUAL DOCUMENTARY.
Reiner thinks he knows the reason why it took so long for fans to come around to the film. “When Spinal Tap initially came out, everybody thought it was a real band,” Reiner told Newsweek in 2010. “Everyone said, ‘Why would you make a movie about a band that no one has heard of?’ The reason it did go over everybody’s head was it was very close to the bone.” This despite the fact that the credits state the band is fictional, “And there’s no Easter Bunny, either!”
3. OZZY OSBOURNE WAS ONE SUCH VIEWER.
Ozzy Osbourne was among the audience members who assumed the band was real. When he learned the truth, he admitted that he should have known better. “They seemed quite tame compared to what we got up to,” he once said.
4. IT’S GOT AN 8.0 RATING ON IMDB… OUT OF 11.
Ratings are a regular feature on the Internet Movie Database, with every title featuring a user-generated rating on a scale of one to 10. Well, almost every title. This is Spinal Tap has its very own scale, and it goes to 11.
5. ROB REINER DOESN’T WEAR SPANDEX WELL.
Reiner had originally planned to play a fourth member of the band, but changed his mind when Shearer reportedly told him that he “didn’t look good in spandex.”
6. ANY SIMILARITIES TO BLACK SABBATH ARE PURELY COINCIDENTAL.
In one of the film’s most iconic moments, a miscommunication in measurements causes what is supposed to be a life-sized version of Stonehenge to end up being small enough that it “was in danger of being crushed by a dwarf.” A similar incident occurred on Black Sabbath’s “Born Again” tour in 1983, except their monument was too big to fit on the stage. Given that This is Spinal Tap was released a year later, that Black Sabbath would have influenced the film seems logical. But the movie scene in question was actually filmed in 1982, as part of a 20-minute short the production team used to get a greenlight.
7. THE FILM HIT TOO CLOSE TO HOME FOR MANY FAMOUS MUSICIANS.
“We do love that, the musicians who have said, ‘Man, I can’t watch Spinal Tap, it’s too much like my life,’” Harry Shearer says in John Kenneth Muir’s book, Best in Show: The Films of Christopher Guest and Company. “That’s the highest compliment of all. It beats all the Oscar nominations we never got.” It’s a compliment the movie’s cast and crew hear quite often. Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, Eddie Vedder, and Dee Snider are just a few of the musicians who have referenced similarities between their own lives and the movie’s plot.
8. IT MADE TOM WAITS AND THE EDGE CRY.
Tom Waits once said that when he watched the film for the first time, he cried because of its realism. The Edge shared a similar sentiment in 2005, when U2 was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: “It’s so hard to keep things fresh, and not to become a parody of yourself,” the legendary guitarist told the crowd of onlookers. “And if you’ve ever seen that movie Spinal Tap, you will know how easy it is to parody what we all do. The first time I ever saw it, I didn’t laugh. I wept. I wept because I recognized so much and so many of those scenes.”
9. MOST OF THE DIALOGUE WAS AD-LIBBED.
Because the vast majority of the film was improvised, all four of the film’s main stars—Reiner, McKean, Guest, and Shearer—received equal billing on the script. But because all of the actors contributed to the script, the foursome lobbied the Writers Guild of America to give every member of the cast a writing credit. The request was promptly denied.
10. ALL THAT IMPROVISATION RESULTED IN MORE THAN 100 HOURS OF FOOTAGE.
Reiner managed to edit the film’s original theatrical release down to 82 minutes, but fans of the film have very actively sought out the unedited footage. In 1998, the Criterion Collection released its only single-layer, double-sided disc that included more than an hour of additional footage (it’s now out of print, but can be found on eBay). MGM’s DVD features an additional 70 minutes of footage. But the holy grail of alternate versions is a four-and-a-half-hour bootleg edition.
11. A SLOPPY SECONDS SUBPLOT WAS REMOVED.
The film’s original script included a fun subplot which explained why the band members are often seen with cold sores on their lips: all three of them had slept with the lead singer of their opening act, and she gave them all herpes.
12. THE BAND IS NOW ONLY SEMI-FICTIONAL.
Though Spinal Tap was created as a pure parody, the film’s success has led to a legitimate music career for McKean, Guest, and Shearer. In the three decades since the film’s debut, the trio has released albums, done numerous interviews in character, and performed in concert. “We played the Pyramid Stage,” Guest told The Wrap in 2013. “There were 130,000 people there or something. Since the film 30 years ago we’ve gone on tour, playing Wembley, the [Royal] Albert Hall, Carnegie Hall… It’s weird but great. The fiction became real.” In the same interview, Guest also hinted that they may be returning to the stage this year.
13. THE FILM HAS A (SORT OF) SEQUEL.
As part of the marketing campaign for their 1992 album, Break Like the Wind, a made-for-television sequel to the original film, The Return of Spinal Tap, was released. In addition to concert footage from a show at the Royal Albert Hall, the 58-minute film featured an appearance by The Folksmen, the fictional folk music band that McKean, Guest, and Shearer created in 1984 for an episode of Saturday Night Live. They have subsequently “opened” in concert for Spinal Tap as The Folksmen, and were once booed off the stage in New York City. The Folksmen also appeared in Guest’s 2003 mockumentary, A Mighty Wind.
14. NORWEGIANS KNOW THE FILM AS HELP! WE ARE IN THE POP BUSINESS!
When This is Spinal Tap was released on video in Norway in 1984, its title was translated as Help! We are in the Pop Business! This caused some Norwegian filmgoers to believe it was related to Airplane, as that had been released as Help! We are Flying! a few years earlier.
15. THE FILM WILL LIVE ON AND ON AND ON.
In 2002, This Is Spinal Tap was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry because it is a film that is considered “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress.