'This Is Spinal Tap' turns 30

A free screening of the mockumentary comes to Millennium Park

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It’s been a few years since I last saw 1984’s “This Is Spinal Tap” and what struck me upon watching it again is just how grounded the comedy is. The heavy metal rock band at the story’s center may be ridiculous, but the actual style of satire the movie works in never pushes the joke too hard. That’s actually pretty rare in a parody, but it’s one of the reasons I think “Spinal Tap” holds up so well 30 years after it was released in theaters.

A free screening of the film comes to Millennium Park at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 29, presented by WBEZ “Sound Opinions” co-hosts Jim DeRogatis and Tribune rock critic Greg Kot, who have hosted a number of screenings at the Music Box Theatre over the years.

“Ever since we started the movie nights, ‘Spinal Tap’ has been on the wish list,” DeRogatis told me. “There are few absolutes that Greg and I actually agree on, but we would both agree that ‘Spinal Tap’ is the best rock movie ever made, period. Because it’s the truest. Absolutely the truest.”

I think some of that speaks to what I was getting at earlier. The movie tweaks the outrageousness of the music industry, but it’s not blown out of proportion. It’s not a hard-sell parody of rock stardom and its excesses (unlike the smirk-inducing 2001 Mark Wahlberg vehicle “Rock Star”) but rather a carefully observed portrait of ego and idiocy. It’s entirely human-scaled, despite all the absurdity. The primary band members — played by the bewigged trio of Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer — are fully formed characters with subtle personality quirks. That they lack self-awareness about everything is perhaps the deepest part of the joke.

Watching the movie three decades after its release feels like a drinking game called “Name That Cameo”: The first drummer to die (“in a bizarre gardening accident”) is played by Ed Begley Jr.; there’s Billy Crystal’s “cater waiter” in white face paint urging his co-worker to hustle it (“Come on, mime is money!”); Bruno Kirby as the limo driver (“f------ limeys”); Fran Drescher’s glossy publicist; “WKRP in Cincinnati’s” Howard Hesseman (with the ultimate kiss-off: “Listen, we’d love to stand around and chat but we’ve got to sit down in the lobby and wait for the limo”); Paul Shaffer’s mustachioed concert promoter suggesting sarcastically that the band just kick him in the rear already.

But the movie’s target and specificity is its key. “It’s not just pratfalls and one-liners,” Kot said. “Spinal Tap is like a formerly successful mid-tier band that’s sliding to irrelevancy, and the beauty of the movie is that it captures that poignancy.

“There’s a real understanding of how the music business worked,” he said, right down to dynamic that emerges within almost all bands:

“The bassist is usually the strong silent type who doesn’t speak much but when he does he embarrasses everybody, and Harry Shearer embodies that perfectly. Then you have the two frontmen (Guest and McKean) who are supposed to be collaborators and instead they’re competing with one another for who has the biggest codpiece or the best song. And then the drummer is so irrelevant, he keeps dying.”

When we first see the band, they are on stage: McKean’s David St. Hubbins in skin-tight white satin pants; Guest’s Nigel Tufnel in a leopard print vest; and Shearer’s Derek Smalls entirely shirtless, save for a few bondage leather straps.

Fast forward to their first sit-down interview with the guy making this documentary — Rob Reiner, playing a character called Marty DiBergi, fully riffing on Martin Scorsese’s own appearance in 1978’s “The Last Waltz” — and their wardrobe has become a collective non-sequitur of pretension: McKean in riding boots; Guest in a kilt; and Shearer smoking a pipe.

“The one disappointment is that there is no rock critic,” said DeRogatis. “Reiner, of course, is playing Scorsese and the hubris of putting himself on camera. But there’s no rock critic parody and that’s somewhat disappointing. That’s the only flaw in an otherwise perfect masterpiece.”

What, I asked, would a satire of a rock critic look like?

“Maybe it’s not needed because rock critics just satirize themselves. There’s that line David Lee Roth said an interview once: ‘Rock critics love Elvis Costello because every critic looks just like him.’ So maybe that would have been shooting fish in a barrel. And generally speaking, I don’t think this movie does that.”

The idea of forming a fake band initially took shape in a pilot for a late-night ABC sketch show called “The T.V. Show” in 1979, and it features the first appearance of Spinal Tap. (Reiner played a Wolfman Jack-type who introduces them on a TV appearance.)

DeRogatis and Kot interviewed Reiner on their radio show last week, and it’s well worth a listen.

“We realized there was no way, in screenplay form, to capture what this was going to be because it was going to be (shot as) a documentary,” Reiner told them. “All we did was outline what the tour was and essentially what the idea of the film was.” The outline was a total of four pages. “That was all we had,” he said, “and then we just started improvising.”

Among rock bands big and small, watching the movie has become a pre-tour ritual. “I’ve talked to guys,” said Kot, “like Steven Tyler of Aerosmith has told me that he doesn’t see how the movie is funny because it is such an accurate depiction of what they had gone through themselves. The movie cuts a little too close to home for some bands.”

Other films about the music industry — fictional or documentary — haven’t come close to capturing that essence. “I’m friends with Cameron Crowe, and I love ‘Almost Famous’ but it’s deeply flawed,” said DeRogatis, “because all of these movies other than ‘Spinal Tap’ all ultimately have an element of super-romanticism about them. The reality is that there are some ugly truths. The movie that comes the closest to that is the Maysles brothers when they capture a murder on film at Altamont in ‘Gimme Shelter’ and showing the Rolling Stones watching the murder while they’re on stage and they’re little bit horrified, but they’re also kind of indifferent.

“I think everybody else has to soft-pedal it. In ‘Almost Famous,’ Kate Hudson plays the groupie, and she’s sold to another band for a case of beer. Well, the fact is, a lot of that world was pretty close to statutory rape, if you read about the Led Zeppelin shark incident and stuff like that.” I had to look that one up. It’s a nasty story — perhaps just an urban legend — about a young woman who was willingly tied up and sexually penetrated with a fish.

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