The Origins of Spinal Tap: Watch the 20 Minute Short Film Created to Pitch the Classic Mockumentary

When This is Spinal Tap came out over 30 years ago, it went over a lot of people’s heads. “Every­body thought it was a real band,” recalled direc­tor Rob Rein­er. “Every­one said, ‘Why would you make a movie about a band that no one has heard of?’”

It’s hard to believe that lines like “You can’t dust for vom­it” failed to come off as any­thing but a joke. But, to be fair, Hol­ly­wood come­dies were gen­er­al­ly straight-for­ward affairs in the ‘80s. Think Blues Broth­ers or Fletch. Fake doc­u­men­taries weren’t a thing. And This is Spinal Tap looks and feels exact­ly like a rock doc­u­men­tary– the hagio­graph­ic voiceover, the shaky cam­era, the awk­ward inter­views.

The movie was just as unscript­ed as rock docs like Don’t Look Back, The Song Remains the Same and The Kids Are All Right. The film is not only a par­o­dy of the gen­er­al­ly overblown silli­ness of rock and roll, it is also, as Newsweek’s David Ansen notes, “a satire of the doc­u­men­tary form itself, com­plete with per­fect­ly fad­ed clips from old TV shows of the band in its mod and flower-child incar­na­tions.”

And then there’s the fact that, for a fake band, Spinal Tap knew how to rock — albeit to com­plete­ly idi­ot­ic lyrics. Christo­pher Guest, Michael McK­ean and Har­ry Shear­er, the actors who make up the core of the band, actu­al­ly played all the music in the movie. And after the cult suc­cess of the film, they went on to play con­certs. Can you real­ly call Spinal Tap a fake band if they wowed audi­ences in Wem­b­ley Sta­di­um?

But the genius stroke of the movie was to mix in pain and dread with the humor. As we’re laugh­ing at David St. Hub­bins and com­pa­ny fret­ting over an 18-inch Stone­henge prop, we also wince in sym­pa­thy. Sting report­ed­ly told Rob Rein­er that he watch­es the movie every time he is about to go on tour. “Every time I watch it, I don’t know whether I should laugh or cry.”

Spinal Tap made its first appear­ance in 1979, five years before the movie pre­miered. It was on a short-lived ABC SCTV-like com­e­dy series called The T.V. Show that starred Rein­er. You can see Guest, McK­ean and Shear­er and com­pa­ny rock­ing out to the tune “Rock n Roll Night­mare” right above. Though the per­for­mance is not near­ly as tight or fun­ny as their sub­se­quent appear­ances, all of the ideas are there. The bloat­ed pre­ten­tious­ness. The sil­ly lyrics. The sil­li­er out­fits. By the way, that bot­tle-wield­ing key­boardist in the clip is Loudon Wain­wright III.

A cou­ple years lat­er, Rein­er and com­pa­ny decid­ed to revis­it Spinal Tap with the idea of mak­ing a mock­u­men­tary. As Rein­er recount­ed in an inter­view with Sound Opin­ions:

They gave us the mon­ey and we real­ized that there was no way in screen­play form that we could cap­ture what this would be. Because it was going to be a doc­u­men­tary. So I said to the guy, give us the mon­ey you were going to give us to write the screen­play and I’ll make you a lit­tle bit of the film. And we made like 20 min­utes of this film. We had back­stage footage. We had con­cert footage. Inter­view stuff.

You can watch the whole demo film (Spinal Tap: The Final Tour) up top in two parts. The hair might be dif­fer­ent and some of the gags might not land with the same punch, but the chem­istry, the con­cept and the com­e­dy are all there. In fact, some clips from the demo, par­tic­u­lar­ly the inter­views, made their way into the final cut of the movie.

Sad­ly, the demo failed to impress the pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny. “The guy [at the pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny] said, ‘I don’t like this.’ So we went around for years to get it made. And final­ly, we were able to put it togeth­er for a cou­ple of mil­lion bucks.”

You can watch Rein­er recount the mak­ing and lega­cy of This is Spinal Tap belowSpinal Tap: The Final Tour will be added to our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ian Rub­bish (aka Fred Armisen) Inter­views the Clash in Spinal Tap-Inspired Mock­u­men­tary

Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel Pro­motes World’s Largest Online Gui­tar Les­son

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing lots of pic­tures of bad­gers and even more pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.


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  • PDG says:

    ” ‘Every­body thought it was a real band,’ recalled direc­tor Rob Rein­er. ”

    Every­body, Rob? Every­body who saw the film thought Spinal Tap was a real band?

  • Vinsanity says:

    Fact: saw Spinal Tap at Bum­ber­shoot in Seat­tle, live in the Col­i­se­um. Ear­ly ’80s. Many in the audi­ence thought they were real. A good time as had by all!

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