Beatlemania didn’t just consume Baby Boomers; it defined them. When the band broke up in 1970, their split caused a seismic generational depression as powerful as the surge of joy that began the night of Sunday, February 9, 1964 on the Ed Sullivan Show. So, it was no surprise that the Beatles’ already legendary status proved to be fertile soil for comic parody, inspiring a classic docu… excuse me, mockumentary, built around the greatest Fab Faux band that never was: the Rutles. In turn, The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash, opened the door for yet another fake documentary set in the music world: This Is Spinal Tap, the first feature directed by Rob Reiner.
The Rutles clearly took aim at the Beatles, whereas Spinal Tap focused on a band of mindless metal-head morons. Neither film was what you would call a hit when it premiered. One ran as a network TV special, finishing last in the week’s ratings, and the other was a theatrical comedy that most people didn’t realize was a joke. Yet both today are considered classics of their time, because they were able to capture the massive cultural energy surrounding the British Invasion of the ’60s, lovingly embrace it, and then turn it ever so slightly onto its ear.
So, which Rock Mock is cock of the walk? Crank this Smack up to 11, and read on.
In the 1970s, despite the diversity of musical genres on the charts, the decade’s surprising cultural superstar was comedy. (Believe me, the only rational response to leisure suits and Richard Nixon was prolonged laughter.) Monty Python’s Flying Circus, comprised of six British comic geniuses, was discovered by Americans en masse via PBS in October, 1974, exactly five years after their anarchic comedy revolutionized the BBC. (Their film, And Now for Something Completely Different, was a minor cult hit when released in the U.S. two years earlier).
In 1976, Neil Innes, who helped form the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, a Python satellite group, created and starred in a U.K. sketch comedy show with Python Eric Idle, Rutland Weekend Television. One of the show’s recurring bits featured the Rutles, a wickedly funny parody of the Fab Four. Idle was Dirk McQuickly, a saccharine Paul McCartney clone, and Innes played acerbic, Lennonesque Ron Nasty.
Two years later, All You Need Is Cash (a.k.a. The Rutles) was produced (by Lorne Michaels, among others) and sold to NBC as a one-shot special. The cast included rock superstars Mick Jagger and Paul Simon, Python’s Michael Palin, and first-wave SNL Not-Ready-for-Primetime players John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner and Bill Murray. The satire was sharp, the humor spot-on. Yet, with this cast, this crew, this level of affectionate expertise, the show had the lowest ratings in American primetime television that week, thereby becoming the first commercial failure connected in any way to either Monty Python or Saturday Night Live.
In 1984, Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer more or less improvised the epic story of fictional heavy metal rock gods, Spinal Tap. The conceit was simple. Director Reiner plays director Marty DiBergi, hired to film a “rockumentary” of “one of England’s loudest bands,” made up of David St. Hubbins (McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Guest) and Derek Smalls (Shearer), as they embark on a world tour to support their latest album, Smell the Glove.
In the process, everything that can possibly go wrong does.
One of the film’s best running gags follows Tap’s parade of drummers and their tragically comic deaths. Another follows the band members as they wander helplessly through a labyrinth of corridors, literally unable to find the stage where they’re late to begin performing. (Forgive me if I find this even funnier than most. I once spent an evening filming Styx for Vh1’s Behind the Music, and this same thing happened to us.)
Brilliantly stupid physical humor is matched by verbal gems that pay homage to the best of the Beatles’ first film, A Hard Day’s Night. In AHDN, Ringo is asked whether he’s a mod or a rocker, and he replies, “A mocker.” In Spinal Tap, Guest’s Nigel Tufnel discusses a composition that’s a combination of Bach and Mozart that he calls, “a Mach piece.” That’s comic perfection.
Each film is a masterpiece in its own right. Both straddle the high wire that delivers brutally sharp parody while showing great affection for their subjects. The Rutles’ humor is darker, notably in its depiction of characters based on Linda McCartney, Yoko Ono and the Beatles’ closeted manager Brian Epstein, who was believed to have more than professional feelings for John Lennon, and who died of an overdose of pills in 1967. (The Epstein character, Rutles manager Leggy Mountbatten, signs the band because he likes, not their music but their “trousers – very tight….”)
Neil Innes’ songs are perfect take-offs on Beatles classics. Lennon reportedly warned Innes that his parody of “Get Back,” “Get Up and Go,” was so perfect that McCartney would probably sue him. (Allegedly, Paul wasn’t a big fan of the film, until Linda convinced him it was a terrific joke.) George Harrison, on the other hand, gave his ultimate blessing. Not only did he appear in a hysterical cameo, he was so impressed he ended up distributing Monty Python’s next film, Life of Brian. This led to the creation of Harrison’s Handmade Films, a company that has never gotten the credit it deserves for pretty much giving birth to the contemporary British indie film movement.
Spinal Tap’s humor ultimately went more for the funny bone than the jugular. As it wasn’t parodying one specific legend, it skewered all aspects of rock hedonism and hubris. The cast is perfection, with Tony Hendra stealing many scenes as the band’s harried manager attempting “to pry the rent from the local Hebrews.”
Other jokes have become legend: A model of Stonehenge said to be “in danger of being crushed by a dwarf. The stinging, two-word review of the band’s latest album: “Shit Sandwich.” Even the very term, rockumentary, was coined for this film, which arguably has almost as many memorable lines as Casablanca.
Spinal Tap also inspired actual bands. Metallica refers to its Black Album in homage. Pearl Jam described its own revolving door of drummers as “very Spinal Tap,” and superstars including Robert Plant and Ozzy Osbourne admitted they, too, frequently got lost on the way to the stage.
Perhaps the ultimate differentiation between the films is production time. The Rutles was made relatively quickly, and it shows in the film’s breezy, knocked-off style. For Spinal Tap, Reiner is said to have shot hundreds of hours of film and painstakingly edited them down to 82 minutes of comedic perfection.
Smart comedy, brilliant music, loving homage to both the Fab Four and the cultural heritage of the Swinging ’60s. These films are cinematic heaven to me. It’s satisfying that both eventually achieved the success and respect they deserved, and depressing that both were originally too clever for their own commercial good. If life were fair, The Rutles and Spinal Tap would be required viewing for every schoolchild, and Dane Cook would be scrubbing toilets.
But which has the edge? For Beatles fans, The Rutles is so beloved that the band is now celebrated alongside the original Fab Four. For rock fans in general, Spinal Tap is certainly better recognized. No less than the Library of Congress has placed it on the list of “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant films” selected for preservation in the United States Film Registry.
So while The Rutles remain “bigger than Rod” (rent the movie!), I’ll go with the mass audience in picking This Is Spinal Tap as our winner. Perhaps not by a knockout, but by a decision on points. Unless it’s by knockout via that tinfoil-wrapped cucumber in Derek Smalls’ pants. They’ve got, y’know, armadillos in their trousers.