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This Is Spinal Tap
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The Big Idea Behind THIS IS SPINAL TAP

Harry Shearer, Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, and Michael McKean all knew each other for several years and had worked together in various configurations. McKean and Shearer were part of a comedy team, The Credibility Gap, in the late 60s-early 70s. McKean later was cast as Lenny in the hit TV sitcom Laverne and Shirley, starring Reiner's then-wife Penny Marshall. As that character, he released an album of music under the band name "Lenny and the Squigtones" in 1979, featuring Christopher Guest on guitar. Guest also appeared in one episode of the sitcom All in the Family, which featured Rob Reiner.

The idea for This Is Spinal Tap had its genesis about four years before principal photography even began. Shearer said the initial impulse "was our mutual shared frustration when we saw all of these rock 'n' roll movies, and they kept getting it wrong. People were supposedly playing guitars with their fingers in impossible positions, given what we were hearing. Forty million people in this country have taken guitar lessons, so why would you insult the audience quite that gratuitously if you don't have to?" The four decided they wanted to make a music movie that was not only funny but realistic.

The filmmakers weren't sure at first if the focus would be on the band or on "some backstage Rosencrantz and Guildenstern angle of a band" (Shearer) but ultimately decided the band itself was more interesting and funnier.

There were several rock documentaries that offered fertile ground for parody, including D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back (1967), which offered much fodder for lampooning the pretensions of rock musicians in its profile of Bob Dylan, and The Last Waltz (1978), in which Martin Scorsese put himself in his documentary of the Band's last concert much as fictional director Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) would do in This Is Spinal Tap.

For financing, the quartet first went to British TV mogul Sir Lew Grade, then the head of the production company ITC, which made its transition from television to movies with blockbuster pictures like Raise the Titanic (1980). Marble Arch, the American branch of Grade's media empire, put up $60,000 for the four to develop a script based on their concept.

The four sat in a hotel room for about four days trying to compose a script until they realized that it was not going to work as a sales tool for getting the full financing needed to get the movie made. According to Shearer, they thought no one would be able to understand it on the page. They decided to produce a demo reel instead that would show their intended use of the documentary style to poke fun at both the fictitious band and the filmmakers who slavishly follow them around, hanging on every word and action.

The group shot the demo over the course of four days, and Reiner edited it. But Marble Arch showed no interest and dropped out.

Efforts to interest Hollywood studios were dismal. Most executives could not understand why anyone would make a movie about a band no one had heard of, and some suggested they turn it into a more traditional comedy with broader, more easily grasped jokes.

They finally got the support they needed from Norman Lear, the television producer who had brought Reiner into the public eye by casting him as the son-in-law in All in the Family. With his tremendous small screen success, Lear had purchased Avco-Embassy and put that company behind the project. The production was given a budget of $2 million.

To shoot This Is Spinal Tap, the filmmakers brought in Peter Smokler, who had worked on the rock documentaries Gimme Shelter (1970), Celebration at Big Sur (1971), and Jimi Plays Berkeley (1971). Smokler brought all the techniques he knew from those earlier movies, such as hand-held camera and grainy cinema-verité footage. He was also well in tune with the intended pseudo-documentary style, having been the cinematographer on the little seen film Punishment Park (1971), which purported to be a real record of an endurance exercise involving soldiers and counterculture dissidents.

Actress June Chadwick says she was brought into the development process when it became clear the script needed an extra storyline and the writers decided to give David a meddling girlfriend to introduce conflict between band leaders David and Nigel (although she insists she is not meant to be either Yoko Ono or Anita Pallenberg). Newly arrived in Hollywood from England, she was auditioned by doing improvisations with the cast.

by Rob Nixon

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