Thursday, April 20, 2017

This Lawsuit Goes to 11

In comedy, as in rock ’n’ roll, nothing is quite as easy as it looks. And so it makes sense that several years before the 1984 release of the legendary rock ’n’ roll mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, director Rob Reiner and stars and co-writers Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer first had to make a shorter version of the same movie: a sort of sample-size Spinal Tap, meant to whet the appetite of studios that might bankroll the real thing. Titled The Final Tour, this 20-minute demo reel about a past-its-prime, unselfconsciously ridiculous band makes for an uncanny viewing experience today, if for no other reason than how fully conceived the idea already was. It’s on YouTube if you’re curious.

There’s Reiner as the band’s earnest interlocutor, Tony Hendra of National Lampoon as the hapless manager, and Bruno Kirby as the cranky limo driver with a thing for Sinatra. There’s the drummer who dies in a bizarre gardening accident—and the other drummer who spontaneously combusts. There’s Shearer’s airport metal-detector scene, where the problem is in his pants. There’s the touching piano number with the surprisingly bawdy title that can’t be printed here. And there are most of the memorable songs: Big Bottom, Sex Farm, Gimme Some Money, Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight, and, of course, Stonehenge, fully staged, complete with that catastrophically tiny prop (they’d expected 18 feet and got 18 inches) and two costumed little people dancing around it.

“I was amazed when I last looked at it,” says Shearer, who plays Derek Smalls, the band’s bare-chested, mutton-chopped, pipe-smoking bassist. “We had this little pittance”—a $60,000 screenplay fee from a company that eventually rejected the idea—“to shoot characters and performances.” He remembers his long black wig costing about $5, and that it took an hour and a half to remove once the shoot was over (the costumer had used super glue). Shearer, Reiner (who plays Marty DiBergi, the fake documentarian), Guest (as lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel), and McKean (as vocalist David St. Hubbins) had been nursing and developing the idea since 1978. They first performed as the band in a 1979 variety show called The T.V. Show. Then they wrote seven new songs, played a few gigs in costume in Los Angeles, and worked out a complete band history to ensure that their improvisations had a narrative spine they all could rely on. “Michael McKean, I believe, still has the napkin on which the possible names and the possible misspellings were outlined,” Shearer recalls, “because I think at one point we thought maybe S-p-y-n-a-l?”

Armed in 1980 with that demo reel, Reiner and the others were rejected by every studio they pitched. Finally, in 1982, they got $2 million from Embassy Pictures Corp., a tiny studio run by Norman Lear, whom Reiner knew well from his days in the cast of All in the Family. (Lesson No. 1 in Hollywood: It helps to have powerful friends.) By the time the movie came out, Lear had left Embassy, which was on the verge of bankruptcy. Despite an appearance by the band as musical guest on Saturday Night Live, the movie performed anemically in theaters and faded quickly.

But then a funny thing happened: Tap refused to die, thanks in no small part to repeat viewings on VHS. “We may have been the first nonporn home video to do well,” Shearer says. In just a few years, This Is Spinal Tap became a sort of comedy-nerd Casablanca, a classic so infinitely quotable that it practically generated its own language. (If anyone has ever told you that something “goes to 11,” you probably haven’t required an explanation.) And like a low-IQ, longhaired Pinocchio, Spinal Tap transformed into the real thing, recording albums and even touring. “The thing that we joke about is called the Spinal Tap curse,” Shearer says, “where we have to go through everything that we’ve made fun of.”

It’s hard to think of another movie from the past 50 years that’s had a bigger impact on modern comedy. Spinal Tap pioneered a mock-doc genre that’s influenced everything from the long run of improvisational films directed by Guest (Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show among them) to docu-styled sitcoms such as The Office and Modern Family. This made it all the more surprising when, about four years ago, Shearer became the first of his fake bandmates to learn lesson No. 2 in Hollywood: No matter how well your movie does, there’s no such thing as net profit. (...)

Sometimes it takes a malcontent to disturb something as intractable as Hollywood accounting practices. By the terms of the contract they signed in 1982 with Embassy Pictures, the four creators of Spinal Tap are entitled to a portion of income from the film, including merchandise and music, provided certain benchmarks are hit. Given the wild afterlife of This Is Spinal Tap, it seems impossible that anyone with a piece of the movie hasn’t made money. And yet this is Hollywood, where studios have claimed that some of the highest-grossing films—hits such as Return of the Jedi, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy—somehow haven’t turned a profit. As David Zucker, one of the creators of Airplane!, once said of his own sleeper hit, “It made so much money that the studio couldn’t hide it fast enough.”

by Robert Kolker, Bloomberg |  Read more:
Image: MPTV Images