A Couple of Thoughts on This Is Spinal Tap Upon The Release of Its Blu Ray Edition

Spinal TapTaking in This Is Spinal Tap for maybe the dozenth time, now on Blu Ray, fondly remembering dorm-room fast-forwarding VHS past the white-on-blue Embassy Pictures logo, what strikes me, this time, is how, depending on your take, TIST can stand both with and apart from the class of popular films of 1984.

Rattling off a list of the mainstream ‘84 flicks that have secured landmark status in the culture some 25 years later—Sixteen Candles, Gremlins, Ghostbusters, Footloose, The Karate Kid, Repo Man, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Beverly Hills Cop and Terminator*—all, amazingly, from 1984—in fact, EW has a piece just last month on the notion of 1984 as a cinematic annus mirabilis of sorts—one can read TIST on its surface as a comedic character piece, with David, Nigel and Derek as 80’s icons, immediately identifiable right alongside the Ghostbusters, Gizmo the Mogwai or The Karate Kid. But, looking at its style and technique, it stands apart from the other films in that list.

Rob Reiner gets credited for coining the term “mockumentary” and if nothing else in his career stands up when all is said and done, this alone merits him a footnote somewhere. (Mockumentary in contrast to a faux documentary—see a detailed discussion on the difference presently taking place at The A/V Club here.) Not that TIST isn’t in debt to some of his own progenitors—see The Rutles, for example.

But it is clear that the films influence still hangs over film and TV still today, both in terms of its documentary technique and actors willing to adopt grotesque, buffoonish personas who go extremes for the sake of the joke—Bruno, The Office, Reno 911!, Curb Your Enthusiasm—as some contemporary examples. Maybe it’s telling about our time that these decedents of the comedic lineage of The ’Tap are increasingly antagonistic and largely unlikeable.

On the technical specs of Blu Ray edition then. The 1080p image is sharp but retains that nice pencil-like grit in the colors that real film has. Considering it was originally shot on 16mm, the restoration is even more impressive. (Compare the look of the hour of unfinalized deleted scenes for an example of how terrible 16mm can look.) One minor quibble is the artificially matting of the image to 16×9 letterbox, chopping off the top and bottom of the frame. One would prefer the film to be left in the original 4×3 or whatever so you see the full image as shot and then allow the home user the choice to zoom in the image should we want a full frame image to fill our widescreens. But the practice is common, not even Kubrick escaping the chopping block, his Blu Rays similarly being chopped to 16×9. Clearly studios do not trust customers to know how to work their home equipment.

The extra footage has been around for a while and mostly deserving of the cutting room floor: expanded minor character sequences, Rob Reiner in a hot tub, etc. Interestingly, the only instance of drug use and references to St. Hubbin’s alcoholism are among the left out scenes. The band’s in-character commentary track is new and not the one recorded for the out of print Criterion DVD. It is funny but can be hit and miss and feels improvised for better or worse. Several of the jokes they make are clearly smarter than their characters and Harry Shearer’s accent still slips in and out. Perhaps that’s just how Derek Smalls talks.

Verdict: Mandatory ownership for the home library.

*Popular films of 1984, not the art-house classics. For the latter, I might include Paris, Texas, Blood Simple, Broadway Danny Rose, Stranger Than Paradise, Stop Making Sense and, of course, Cannonball Run II. And no, not Amadeus.