Monday, May 29, 2006


This Is Spinal Tap, still the king of mockumentaries (not to mention mock rockumentaries -- rockumockumentaries?) is 83 minutes long. The special edition DVD includes an hour and seven minutes of outtakes, for a total of two and a half hours of material. (The Criterion laserdisc apparently had some outtakes not on the DVD, but I've never seen it.) And then there is the legendary four-and-a-half hour workprint. Recently, I had a chance to see this workprint, thanks to Odd Obsession Movies. The workprint is nothing like a "director's cut": Rob Reiner undoubtedly never contemplated releasing a four-and-a-half hour comedy, and most of the scenes in the workprint that do appear in the movie are far from their final form. And I certainly wouldn't recommend watching the workprint first. Still, for the fan of Spinal Tap, it's fascinating viewing.

So what do the extra two hours consist of? (Actually, a little more than two hours, since some of the stuff in the final movie and DVD outtakes isn't in the workprint, most notably Marty's interview with the band on their history and the interview in the hot tub that appears in the outtakes.) For one thing, there's a lot of footage of the band and their hangers-on sitting or lying around in hotel rooms. (More on this later.) Apart from that, most of the "new" material is not completely new scenes. The main exceptions to this are scenes from a subplot revolving around the singer of Spinal Tap's opening band (briefly described here) which was excised completely from both the film and the outtakes, except for the lip sores that mysteriously appear at one point. But this aside, what we mainly get is longer versions of scenes in the movie or outtakes. The new material appears at the beginning, end, and middle of scenes: Reiner did a lot of tightening up of scenes in the process of editing. (This is true of the DVD outtakes as well: those are in no sense raw footage.)

What was cut was by and large not jokes, though a few good gags were lost. My favorite of these is Nigel's statement that "Lick My Love Pump," his classical piece, was scored for "cello, French horn, English horn, and flugelorn." Ian also had a few good bits that were cut. When the band is sitting around depressed after the disc jockey's remark that they're in the "where are they now?" category, Ian tries to get them fired up by wrecking their hotel room for them, while they look on apathetically. (Bits of this footage were used in Marty's interview with Ian in the final film.) In the DVD outtakes, there's a scene where Bobbi visits the band after they've performed a great concert, is very enthusiastic, and tells them that she's going to call a meeting and get the record company behind them. On the DVD this ends with Ian explaining to the band that they didn't make anything over the guarantee. In the workprint, the conversation about the guarantee comes before Bobbi enters, and the scene ends with Ian taking his leave of the very encouraged band members while muttering to himself: "We are fucked. We are fucked." The workprint version of the scene seems clearly more effective to me. Perhaps Reiner wanted, or was forced, to avoid the f-word in the outtakes, even though it was used in the film itself. This article has brief descriptions of a few other bits that were cut.

Much of the extra material fleshes out the characters and makes them less cartoonish, particularly David, Nigel and Derek. We see more of David and Nigel's relationship, and their struggles to preserve it. (Some of this is in the DVD outtakes, but it has more impact when it's integrated into the film.) Derek isn't as much of a moron, and we see more of his attempts to moderate between David and Nigel. And aside from specific scenes, the fact that in the workprint we spend so much time watching the characters interact casually, like real people, leads us to think of them more as real people. The greater reality of the characters, in turn, raises the workprint's emotional stakes: the split between David and Nigel isn't just a joke.

Two specific changes add to this seriousness. In the original movie the scene at Rainbow Trout studios where Nigel blows up at David lasts less than a minute. The DVD outtakes add another two and a quarter minutes, including brief glimpses of Derek trying to mediate between the two. In the workprint the scene lasts for eleven and a half minutes, including more of Derek's mediation. And it's not played for laughs: you can feel the growing frustration of the band members.

And in the workprint, the gig where Nigel rejoins the band is not just the last gig of the tour. Before Nigel returns it's going to be the last gig ever: "Tap" are planning to break up. Commenting on the "Tap lives" banner, Derek says "We do live, for about eighty-two more minutes."

The other big difference between the workprint and the final film is that the workprint has much more of a cinema verite feel, due to all the footage of people hanging around in hotel rooms that I mentioned before (or of the band en route from one place to another), and to the unedited nature of the scenes. The cinema verite feel is reinforced by the fact that most of the footage appears to have been transferred to black and white (at least on the disk that I watched). At times it feels almost like you're watching real documentary footage of a real band.

In addition to providing a glimpse of how the final film was edited, the workprint helps explain why This Is Spinal Tap is such a classic. The final film comes off largely as a series of very funny sketches. But the workprint demonstrates that these sketches were built upon a solid foundation of characterization and story, even if much of this foundation is de-emphasized in the final film.

(Incidentally, my mentions of Odd Obsession Movies may have given the impression that it only carries ultra-obscure stuff. That's not the case. While they may not carry many recent blockbusters, they have a wide selection of "mainstream" classics and B-movies.)

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