True story: when "This Is Spinal Tap" premiered in 1984, audiences thought it was a straightforward rock documentary about a real band. Mind you, that would be a band that customizes the volume knob on an amp to go to 11, on the logic that 11 must be louder than 10. A band that copies Stonehenge for a stage set but mixes up inches and feet in the specifications and winds up with a doll-size replica. Who could believe such silliness? A lot of people, according to Rob Reiner, the film's director. "When 'Spinal Tap' initially came out," he says, "everybody thought it was a real band. 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." Reiner modeled his film, about an over-the-hill hair-metal band attempting a comeback, on straight-faced rock docs such as the Maysles brothers' "Gimme Shelter," about the Rolling Stones, and D. A. Pennebaker's "Don't Look Back," about Bob Dylan. In doing so, he blurred the lines between fiction and reality (a line further blurred, if not erased altogether, by the fact that Spinal Tap, originally conceived by actors Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer for a TV special, was, and continues to be, a marginally proficient band that tours and puts out albums). What Reiner did not foresee was that in its 25-year existence, "Spinal Tap" has influenced both the way we tell stories—Michael Schur, creator of "The Office," recently said the mockumentary is his preferred storytelling format—and the way we understand them. (Story continued below...)
So don't feel bad if you think the new documentary "Anvil! The Story of Anvil," which follows an aging Canadian metal band on an increasingly ill-fated tour, is a loving "Spinal Tap"–esque mockumentary: where once some audiences thought the fictional "Spinal Tap" was real, now audiences are thinking the documentary "Anvil!" is a clever fake. Admittedly, much of the film seems too good to be true. Though "Spinal Tap" is never mentioned directly, "Anvil!" is rife with "Tap" references and moments. The control on a soundboard goes to 11. The band visits Stonehenge. The drummer is named Robb Reiner (no relation to the director). " 'Spinal Tap' plays so well
because it feels true, and Anvil is the truth it's based on," says director Sacha Gervasi. The director has known the band for more than 25 years (he ran away from home to follow them on tour when he was 16 and became a combination roadie/band pet) and says he still has moments he's not entirely convinced. "In the back of my mind, I've thought maybe these guys have been playing a really long joke on me," he says. At one point during filming, a cameraman locked Gervasi in a hotel room and begged him to admit the whole thing was a hoax.
There would be no "Spinal Tap" if there were no Anvils to inspire it. But in a larger sense, if it weren't for "Spinal Tap," there would not only be no "Anvil!" documentary, there also might be no Borat, "The Colbert Report," "The Office" or "Behind the Music." "Spinal Tap" certainly wasn't the first satirical documentary (Woody Allen's "Take the Money and Run" and "Zelig" both use documentary techniques), but it's one of the most influential—it's what undermined our automatic assumption that if something looked like a documentary, it must be true. Now we assume the opposite: fake until proved real, and we don't really seem to care either way, as long as it makes us laugh.
"The masterstroke of 'Spinal Tap' is to use the techniques that elevate bands like the Stones, or Dylan, to make a film about a band that's utterly mediocre," says Ethan de Seife, a professor of film studies at Hofstra and author of "This Is Spinal Tap," a critical assessment of the film. The rock documentarians who preceded "Tap" used cinéma vérité techniques such as handheld-camera work, incidental background sound and the absence of a narrator to convince audiences that they were seeing unmediated reality. Of course, what viewers were seeing was each filmmakers' version of reality, and it was easy for Reiner to adapt these techniques to his fictional portrait, simultaneously tweaking the bands and the directors who slavishly documented them. In the same way, a show such as "The Colbert Report" adopts the style of news commentary to lampoon the self-seriousness of punditry, and "The Office" shows actors addressing the camera directly to mimic the feel of workplace documentaries. Even VH1 tips its hat to the influence of "Spinal Tap" in shaping the look and feel of its melodramatic "Behind the Music" series. " 'Behind the Music' brings it back around; it's like a mock mock rockumentary," says de Seife. "If you're going to make the story about the band, you almost can't not do it like 'Spinal Tap' did because they did it so well."
As influential as the film is as satire, many musicians still consider it closer to vérité. "I can't tell you the number of stories I've heard from real rock-and-rollers who watch it over and over again," Reiner says. "Sting said he'd seen 'Spinal Tap' 50 times. He said he still doesn't know whether to laugh or cry." Some of the stuff in the movie was inspired by actual events, such as when the band gets lost on the way to the stage, which happened to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The scene where guitarist Nigel Tufnel complains about the bread on a deli spread being too small for the meat was a riff on Van Halen's request that no brown M&Ms be included in their backstage candy bowl. Other details were lucky coincidences, such as the band's Stonehenge set, which Black Sabbath chose for their own tour two weeks before the film came out. "They accused us of stealing the idea, which shows how dumb they are," Reiner says. "It took us two years to make the film. Did they think we stole something two years before it happened?" Even the preposterous-sounding death of a Tap drummer in a freak "gardening accident" proved eerily prescient when Toto's drummer, Jeff Porcaro, died after inhaling plant pesticide.
Some of the best parts of "Anvil!," too, seem more "Spinal Tap" than "Spinal Tap," such as a bit where guitarist Steve (Lips) Kaplan and Reiner (that's Robb Reiner, Anvil's drummer, who will hereafter be referred to as Robb Reiner, to avoid confusion with Rob Reiner, who's done most of the talking so far) reminisce about writing the song "Thumb Hang," inspired by a school lesson about the torture techniques of the Spanish Inquisition, or when Robb Reiner shows off his painting collection, including a piece he made depicting the contents of his toilet. "There were many times we were filming that I was looking up to heaven, saying, 'Thank you, God'," Gervasi says. "You could never make this stuff up. When we were in Transylvania and playing the Monsters of Rock show, Lips ran off the stage in agony, with his hands on the bottom of his spine. It turned out he had sung so hard in the entrance to Robb's drum solo, which he calls 'white rhino'—who does a drum solo anymore, let alone name it?—his hemorrhoids came out. Being with them is like a living acid trip."
It's less clear how much Lips and Robb Reiner are in on the joke. At a "meet the band" event in a Manhattan bar, Robb Reiner seems slightly put out by questions about Anvil's similarity to Spinal Tap. "Look, we were around before the movie," he says. Lips seems less bothered by the comparisons, simply referring to Anvil as "the real Spinal Tap." Both men hope the film will jump-start the band's popularity and are touring alongside the movie as well as planning a new album. Coincidentally, the real "real Spinal Tap"—McKean, Guest and Shearer—are hitting the road for the "Unwigged" tour, during which they'll play Spinal Tap songs, as well as songs from their mockumentaries "A Mighty Wind" and "Waiting for Guffman." They're also putting out a new Spinal Tap album this summer. The difference is, Spinal Tap has no illusions of musical greatness—their goal is not to make us rock, but make us laugh.
Watching Lips and Robb Reiner choke up in the film talking about their enduring passion for the band is touching, but also slightly unsettling, like many reality TV shows where it's unclear how much the participants are playing a part, and how much those tears during the final rose ceremony are real. "It's a vague, if nonexistent line between satire and reality," says the director Reiner, acknowledging that "Spinal Tap" played a significant role in that erasure. "Now you've got art imitating life imitating art. Now somebody has to do a satire of Anvil. It's like, let's all fly up our own asses." In a way, it makes you hope Lips and Robb Reiner really have been perpetuating an elaborate, multidecade hoax, and are laughing their heads off right now.