Wednesday, December 26, 2012

This is Spinal Tap & Anvil! The Story of Anvil

By David Skolnick

Editors’ Note: We’re always looking to branch out, which leads us to a new feature. Message in the Music is about films in which music plays a significant role, but the movies wouldn’t be considered musicals. It’s kind of a musical non-musical. Unlike West Side Story, Grease, Oklahoma! or an Elvis movie, actors in these films don’t suddenly break into song. That is, unless they’re in bands – real and fake. For starters, I’m reviewing one of my all-time favorite films, and a documentary I recently saw that is pretty funny even though it’s about a real band.

This is Spinal Tap (Embassy Pictures, 1984) – Director: Rob Reiner. Starring Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Rob Reiner, & Harry Shearer.

I’ve seen This is Spinal Tap close to 50 times, and I’ll likely see it 50 more. This groundbreaking “mockumentary” has some of cinema’s funniest and most clever lines – and many of them were ad-libbed. The film tells the story of fictitious aging English hard-rock band Spinal Tap on a tour of the United States in support of its latest album, “Smell the Glove.”

This is Rob Reiner’s directorial debut, playing Marty DiBergi, a documentary director following and filming Tap’s tour. The band’s three main characters are David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), the lead singer and rhythm guitarist; Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), the lead guitarist; and bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer).

The music plays a key role in the film, with McKean, Guest, Shearer as well as David Kaff, who plays keyboardist Viv Savage, and R.J. Parnell, who plays drummer Mick Shrimpton, all performing.

While the band plays a number of songs in their entirety such as “Big Bottom,” about a woman with a, well, big bottom; “Hell Hole,” “Stonehenge,” and “Sex Farm,” there are snippets of other songs supposedly from years ago when they were somewhat famous. On the DVD, you can see complete performances of several of those songs. The DVD also includes more than an hour of scenes not in the movie, and commentary from McKean, Guest and Smalls in their Spinal Tap characters. The soundtrack is excellent and I highly recommend it. I’ve had the cassette since 1985.

The film has numerous running gags, including the strange and funny deaths of their drummers. One dies in a “bizarre gardening accident” that authorities said was “best (to) leave it unsolved.” Another died choking on vomit – someone else’s vomit. “You can’t really dust for vomit.” And everyone’s favorite: spontaneous human combustion. “Dozens of people spontaneously combust each year. It’s just not really widely reported,” St. Hubbins says matter of factly.

There is a delay in releasing “Smell the Glove” because of the album cover. Bobbi Flekman, an executive with the band’s record company and easily Fran Drescher’s best role (which isn’t saying too much), tells the band’s manager, Ian Faith (Tony Hendra), the cover is “sexist,” and stores won’t stock it for sale.

Flekman tells Faith: “You put a greased naked woman on all fours with a dog collar around her neck, and a leash, and a man’s arm extended out up to here, holding onto the leash, and pushing a black glove in her face to sniff it. You don’t find that offensive? You don’t find that sexist?” Faith responds: “Well, you should have seen the cover they wanted to do. It wasn’t a glove. Believe me.”

(Later, Ian tells the band about the problem with Nigel naively responding, “Well, so what. What’s wrong with being sexy?")

This results in the album being released with an all-black record sleeve with no title or the band’s name to be found. The band is deflated despite Ian trying to put a positive spin on it. Nigel kinds of buys it, saying, “It’s like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is ‘none. None more black.’”

Gigs get canceled, including one in Boston with Faith telling the band, “I wouldn’t worry about it though. It’s not a big college town.” At a show in Cleveland, the group tries to find its way to the stage but gets completely lost. Several real bands have said over the years that’s happened to them. Actually several bands have said a lot of the scenes in the film really occurred and the movie hits a little too close to home.

A big production number with what is supposed to be a replica of Stonehenge for the band’s song of the same name is priceless. Instead of using feet, Tufnel draws the dimensions of Stonehenge on a napkin in inches. Rather than not use the mini-Stonehenge, Ian hires two midgets to dance around the replica with hilarious but embarrassing results. “There was a Stonehenge monument on the stage that was in danger of being crushed by a dwarf.”

Finally, St. Hubbins’ girlfriend arrives, causing Yoko-esque tension between St. Hubbins and Tufnel as well as with Faith, who quits after Jeanine (June Chadwick) is recommended by her boyfriend to be the group’s co-manager. The band is in disarray with the final straw being a gig at an Air Force base that leads to Nigel quitting. The next stop is at an amusement park in Stockton, California, where a puppet show is listed on a sign above the band. Jeanine sees it and says, “If I told them once, I told them 100 times to put Spinal Tap first and puppet show last.”

The best parts are the free-flowing interviews DiBergi does with the three Tap principals as McKean, Guest and Shearer are wonderful improv comedians. Discussing reviews for their albums are highlights. “The review for ‘Shark Sandwich’ was merely a two-word review which simply read ‘Shit Sandwich.’” For the “Rock and Roll Creation” album, a reviewer wrote: “This pretentious ponderous collection of religious rock psalms is enough to prompt the question, ‘What day did the Lord create Spinal Tap, and couldn’t he have rested on that day too?’” “That’s a good one. That’s a good one,” Smalls responds.

The most memorable scene has DiBergi in Tufnel’s house looking at his collection of guitars. One guitar has never been played. Tufnel freaks out when he thinks DiBergi is going to touch it, telling him to not even point or look at it. In the room is an amp that goes to 11 rather than 10. Tufnel goes into an explanation about it being “one louder.” DiBergi asks why not just make 10 be the loudest. Tufnel looks at him completely confused and says, “These go to 11.” Many musicians since then have had amps that go to 11 in honor of the scene.

The film ends with the band getting back together to tour Japan where “Sex Farm” has hit No. 5 on that country’s singles chart. Shrimpton dies on stage, a victim of spontaneous combustion. What are the odds?

The movie is a perfect parody of rock-and-roll excess with great music and excellent acting. Guest, McKean and Shearer have done several other improv films over the years. While many are wonderful, none can touch their first collaboration.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil (Abramorama, 2008) – Director: Sacha Gervasi. Starring Steve “Lips” Kudlow & Robb Reiner.

Around the same time This is Spinal Tap was released, a heavy-metal band, Anvil, was at their peak. In the early to mid-1980s, the Canadian band played at rock festivals with this documentary initially focusing on a 1984 show in Japan that also included Bon Jovi, the Scorpions, Whitesnake and the Michael Schenker Group (though the latter and significantly less successful band isn’t mentioned in this documentary).

While Bon Jovi, the Scorpions, Whitesnake and other hair/metal bands of the time – including Metallica and Motorhead – enjoyed commercial success, Anvil didn’t. Director Sacha Gervasi, who grew up an Anvil fan and was a roadie during the band’s peak years, frames the film that members of other bands – including Metallica, Motorhead, Guns N’ Roses, Anthrax, Slayer and Megadeath - all greatly admire Anvil and are shocked more than two decades later that the group never made it.

After years of the disappointment and poor sales of 12 albums, Steve “Lips” Kudlow, the band’s singer and guitarist, and drummer Robb Reiner are the only original members left. While they both have mundane jobs - Reiner’s naïve simplicity parallels Christopher Guest’s Niles Tufnel - they haven’t given up their dream of being rock stars. The two other members of the band from the early 80s have moved on, replaced by others.

When you listen to them play, though, it’s obvious why they never reached that top level. Despite the musical shortcomings of Bon Jovi and Whitesnake, for examples, Anvil is even worse. One scene in which Kudlow is in the studio singing is unforgettable as he is terrible. But that’s not the point of the film. Also ignored is that the band made some bad business decisions and Kudlow had an opportunity to play guitar with Motorhead, but opted to stay with Anvil.

Kudlow and Reiner, longtime friends from childhood, have problems similar to Spinal Tap, except Anvil is a real band. Anvil gets booked for a European tour, which turns out to be an absolute disaster. You may feel bad for the band, but you will also find yourself laughing at what happens.

The European tour starts out well with the band playing at the Sweden Rock Festival and they run into Michael Schenker and former Vanilla Fudge drummer Carmen Appice, who comes across as having no idea who they are. (In the mid to late 70s, Appice was Rod Stewart’s drummer and with Rod co-wrote “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” and “Young Turks.”) It’s similar to when Tap run into Duke Fame, a famous musician, in a hotel lobby and he doesn’t know who they are.

That festival show is the highpoint of the tour. They get lost in Prague trying to find the bar where they are to perform. At least Spinal Tap got lost inside a concert hall in Cleveland. They show up two hours late, perform to a near-empty audience and get into an argument, that becomes a little physical, with the bar owner who won’t pay them. The band misses train connections, runs out of money, has gigs canceled and when they actually perform there’s hardly anyone there to listen. Reiner is ready to quit and go home, but Kudlow convinces him to stay.

The last show of the tour is akin to Tap’s airbase and amusement park concerts. Anvil plays at a Transylvania show in a 10,000-seat arena. They play in front of 174 people.

“Everything on the tour went drastically wrong. But at least there was a tour for it to go wrong on,” Kudlow says.

Despite one disaster after another, Kudlow and Reiner decide to give it one last shot by hiring the producer of what they considered their best-sounding album. They believe they just haven’t been produced properly and that’s why they keep failing to make it big. But without a record label, they’ve got to come up with the money, about $20,000, to make the album. To raise the money, Kudlow works for a telemarketing company selling sunglasses. It’s an epic failure. His sister, Rhonda, gives him the money. They end up making the album in England and the frustration of the project and decades of failure leave the two of them arguing and Reiner quitting again. Once more, Kudlow convinces Reiner to finish the album.

They love the end result, but can’t get any label to sign them despite sending it everywhere. Kudlow is proud of the record even though no one wants to hear it. Like Spinal Tap, Anvil is asked to go to Japan. They’re under the impression they are to be headliners, but it turns out they are the opening band for a three-day rock festival. They anticipate yet another letdown, but the movie ends on a high note as they get to play in front of a decent and excited crowd.

Based on this film, Anvil received a few opportunities to open for some bigger bands, most notably AC/DC, play some festivals and appear on a handful of television shows.

As a film, Anvil! The Story of Anvil is interesting and shows how much the principals in This is Spinal Tap know about the music industry. The quality of the documentary is excellent, even though it does ignore some of the band’s shortcomings, and you do feel bad for Kudlow and Reiner as they face one obstacle after another. Their misadventures are so tragically funny that you can’t help but laugh at their repeated failures and inability to recognize that they’re never going to make it.

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