Film Reviews

Mock Speed

In 1988 Penelope Spheeris released the amusing rock documentary The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. Rob Reiner's This Is Spinal Tap is an almost perfect parody of Spheeris' film, and Christopher Guest's Nigel Tufnel is a perfect parody of Ozzy Osborne's persona in Spheeris' film. The only problem, of course, is that This Is Spinal Tap predates Decline Part II by four years.

This may be one of those weird cases in which fiction corrupts the real world, since Spheeris and Osborne were surely familiar with Spinal Tap when shooting Decline II. Was Ozzy simply trying to live up to the image Guest created?

The corruption of reality didn't stop there: Spinal Tap eventually became popular enough that the fake band became a real band. Guest, Harry Shearer, and Michael McKean have periodically morphed back into their alter egos for tours and records. In fact, for legal reasons, they have to become Spinal Tap every once and a while to renew their ongoing license to use the characters they created. (Long-term rights to the characters and music were signed away during the original production and have changed hands over the years.)

The "real-life" band's longevity is analogous to the "fake" band's fate in the film. It was also unexpected: This Is Spinal Tap wasn't a big hit upon its initial release: "Ahead of its time" would be a fair appraisal. When I first saw the film at a UCLA campus preview on March 6, 1984--I really have to clean out my file cabinet--it was clear that at least a quarter of the audience thought it was a genuine documentary.

Guest, McKean, and Shearer are now keeping the franchise alive with the help of MGM Home Video, in the form of a new DVD release of the film on Tuesday. (The film itself is being re-released in theaters Friday to help stir interest.) Criterion Collection, the videophiles' friend, two years ago issued a DVD that was cloned off the company's deluxe laserdisc edition. But the rights reverted to MGM, and Criterion's version went out of print and rapidly became an expensive collector's item.

MGM has been wise enough to try to match and even better Criterion's feature-rich version. Criterion had roughly 77 minutes of deleted scenes, another 11 or so minutes of videos and trailers, a 20-minute preliminary reel Reiner used to sell the project, a Dolby Digital mix, and two commentary tracks, one by the three leads, and another by Reiner, the editors, and the producer.

MGM has roughly the same amount of extra footage, videos, and ads--the box claims "over one hour of never-before-seen footage." This is only partly true: While much of the material is new, at least a third either duplicates stuff from the Criterion disc or consists of alternate takes so similar to Criterion's selections that there's no discernible difference. MGM omits the showcase reel but adds a new interview with "director" Marty diBergi (Reiner), a bunch of trailers and TV spots, one new video, and an all-too-brief clip from Spinal Tap's appearance on the Joe Franklin Show, in which it appears that Franklin and his other guests truly have no idea the band is a put-on.

Since rights were not available to the earlier disc's commentary tracks, MGM brought in the stars to record a new track in character. It becomes almost a new movie of its own: Tufnel and bandmates David St. Hubbins and Derek Smalls spend most of the track griping about what a weasel DiBergi was and how he sabotaged them and made them look bad. Every time St. Hubbins' girlfriend is on-screen, Tufnel's remarks seem on the verge of provoking yet another band breakup.

It's pretty funny stuff, though I'd give the Criterion cast track the edge. It was funny and informative, while the new version gets repetitive.

Technically, the MGM disc has a number of advantages: The music sequences are in broad Dolby Digital 5.1 rather than Criterion's 2.0. It has a slightly better transfer and is enhanced for widescreen TVs. Be sure not to rush through the opening menu, which is nearly worth the price of the disc.

In short, while the Criterion is worth hanging on to if you've got it, real fans will buy the MGM as well. If both were equally available, the MGM might still be preferred...

...except for one thing: Somehow, like some of the other major studios, MGM Home Video can't seem to get things exactly right. In this case, they made 99 right decisions out of a hundred, but the one they botched is a lulu (and is reminiscent of the screwup that made their release of Annie Hall not worth buying). For God knows what reason, they have omitted all the superimposed onscreen titles identifying characters and places. This is no small thing: These IDs were part of what gave the film its genuine documentary feel; many of them were jokes in themselves; and the original editing was sometimes based on their being there. If you're just watching the film straight now, without the commentary track on, you'll never know that the band's final drummer was Joe "Mama" Besser.

It's impossible to imagine that Reiner OK'ed this. It's likelier that some nimrod involved in the programming of the foreign-language subtitle options removed them and forgot to put them back. If not, if this was deliberate, its sheer stupidity trumps all the right decisions MGM made. Don't these people understand that we want nothing left out of the theatrical version? It may not seem like a big thing, but in principal it's no different than cutting out scenes.

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Andy Klein