A few cult movies can be recognized by one line of dialogue (like, say, "I'm a pimp and pimps don't commit suicide" from 'Southland Tales' or "Hail to the king baby" from 'Army of Darkness'). Fewer still can be identified by one word of dialogue (does "Dude" from 'The Big Lebowski' count?) But the most rare is the cult flick that can be identified by a single number. But that's the case with 'This is Spinal Tap.' All you have to do is say one number, and people will know what you're talking about. And that number is 11.
'This is Spinal Tap,' for those of you who have been living under a rock for the last 25 years, is a film by Rob Reiner that unofficially kicked off the "mockumentary" comedy sub-genre. This is a genre that co-star Christopher Guest would elaborate on and refine for the better part of his career, through films like 'Waiting for Guffman' and 'Best in Show,' and which has been co-opted for commercial use for television shows like 'The Office' and 'Parks & Recreation.'
But while most current mockumentaries feature characters addressing the camera directly, Reiner and company chose the approach of simply following the band, like an actual rock doc. Except, you know, the fictional British band Spinal Tap (comprised of Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer) are complete idiots. Some of their more memorable goofs include getting lost on their way to the stage, and, during their ode to ancient mysticism "Stonehenge," having a tiny replica of the stone formation grace their stage.
While the premise would seemingly be dated by now, what with heavy metal's intense period of popularity having come and gone a very long time ago, funny is funny, and 'This Is Spinal Tap' is incredibly funny. It's actually kind of shocking how many of the jokes retain their initial comedic punch, and how few fall flat.
Another shocking detail of 'This is Spinal Tap' is the amount of comedic talent involved. It's just staggering - besides the principles, Fran Drescher, Bruno Kirby, Billy Crystal, Fred Willard and Ed Begley Jr. appear. Whether the band is making an offhanded remark about the possible inappropriateness of their album cover or if they're detailing the long series of drummers who have died inexplicable deaths while in the band, you will be howling with laughter. And no, it doesn't matter if you've seen it before. There's always something new to giggle at.
If you haven't seen it already, I'll stop with the plot points for fear of ruining anything else. You just might want to invest in some adult-sized diapers. It's that funny.
And what about 11? Well, they've designed their amps and speakers and whatnot with knobs that go to 11, so when they need an extra kick. "Well, why don't you just make 10 a little louder?" Real life filmmaker Rob Reiner, as fake documentary filmmaker Marty DiBergi asks. But if you have to ask, you're missing the point of 'This is Spinal Tap' - it's an endlessly entertaining, often imitated comedic masterpiece and one that, to this day, still goes to 11.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The disc does not play automatically. There is a brief text screen discussing the Blu-ray format, followed by the red Fox display against copyright, the disclaimer about the views of the commentary track participants, and then right to the menu.
The 1080p MPEG-4 AVC (aspect ratio: 1.85:1) transfer on this 50GB disc is quite admirable. 'This is Spinal Tap' is a cheap movie, one that was shot on 16mm. The visual lousiness is aesthetic decision in an attempt to mimic the look and feel of documentary films. But more often than not, it seems like they just ran out of money. That said, here on Blu-ray, 'This is Spinal Tap' looks the best it ever has. Is it crisp and razor-sharp like 'Transformers 2?' No. But it's a pretty great transfer.
First, the bad: There is a persistent level of grain throughout the movie, although one that doesn't distract, it is very much there. There's also some noise that pops up from time to time, artifacts that occasionally make their presence known, and the picture occasionally goes uncomfortably soft and muddy.
That said, these instances don't take away from the visual presentation, and are only minor quibbles that, while needing to be addressed, don't overwhelm the experience.
The good: the rest of the transfer is fairly dynamite. At the very least you won't believe that this thing was shot on 16mm. Flesh tones look great throughout, there's a sharpness in detail that often dazzles, black levels are deep (perfect for the death metal performances) and when colors pop up, they are bright and well-defined.
With this transfer, you've kind of got to take the good with the bad. In my estimation, the good outweighs the bad, and this is by far the best home video presentation of the film so far. It won't bowl you over, and it certainly isn't reference quality, but it's solid and far from bad.
The sound mix is somewhat more impressive on the 'This is Spinal Tap' Blu-ray. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 offers the best of both worlds, equaling a muscular and refined mix that should appeal to longtime fans of the film and the diehard audio-philes out there, too.
The musical sequences are where this mix really shines, with the surround sound getting a heavy duty workout. While not as good as a "real" concert DVD, there is a whole lot of heft in these musical sequences, with booming bass, great directionality, and the overall immersive feeling all being top notch. The music's sharp arrangements and hilarious lyrics are both crystal clear, with everything being perfectly prioritized so nothing is muffled, muted, or indecipherable.
Even with the dialogue-heavy interview sequences, most of the dialogue is front and center and is crisp and clean throughout. However, the atmospherics of certain scenes, with things going on in the background or foreground, play into the mix for those sequences, with none of the dialogue paying the price.
While the video is solid, the audio goes above and beyond. Cranking this up to 11 would not be a bad idea.
Also included on this disc is an English Dolby Digital 2.o mix and subtitles in English SDH, Spanish and French.
First things first: no, the Criterion commentary is not included. It will never be included. Clutch your rare, out of print Criterion copy to your chest and never, ever let it go. Secondly, there are some new special features, but they're on a bonus DVD (not Blu-ray) and are in standard definition. So while they're under the HD Exclusives part of this review, they aren't in HD. I know - it confuses me too. Everything else is from a fairly recent special edition DVD. So if you have that, then you'll know what you're in for.
In the interest of time and sanity, I'm going to review the disc's special features by their sub-headings. I'll still go through everything, but this will be easier for the both of us. If you already own the DVD, just skip to the HD Exclusive part of this review.
'This is Spinal Tap' still rocks. With improved audio and video and a whole host of special features, this Blu-ray edition of one of the funniest movies ever, is highly recommended. Some technical issues with the video quality, and the fact that none of the extras are in HD (and the bonus disc included is a DVD and not a Blu-ray) hold this back from must own status, but anyone who is fan of this wacky film should not hesitate to pick it up. This disc pumps things up to 11.