Christopher Guest…and Guests

Chris_Michael_Harry_pressIn 1984, a young filmmaker and a group of musically gifted comedians set out to make a low budget comedy and ended up inventing a genre. This is Spinal Tap was the directorial debut from Rob Reiner, who was then primarily known from his role as Michael “Meathead” Stivic from All In the Family. Reiner would go on to direct Stand By Me, The Princess Bride and Misery, among many other classic films.

This is Spinal Tap was filmed in a mere 25 days and was almost entirely improvised. The film, about the declining years of fictitious hard rock band Spinal Tap, spoofed not only the pretentiousness that had enveloped rock ‘n’ roll by the 1970’s, but the even greater pretentiousness surrounding rock journalism and documentaries, or “rockumentaries.” The deliciousness in This is Spinal Tap is that it was a double-edged sword, lampooning two separate phenomena and subcultures simultaneously and to perfection.

The method of filming, a series of interviews and footage told in a faux-documentary style became known as “mockumentary” and its influence can be seen in comedy today, from The Office to Modern Family, and especially in the Christopher Guest-helmed ensemble mockumentaries that have followed: Waiting For Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration.

Guest was there from the beginning with Spinal Tap, as “lead guitar” player Nigel Tufnel (not to be confused with “lead guitar” player David St. Hubbins, portrayed by Michael McKean) and as a co-writer of the film (along with Michael McKean, Harry Shearer and Rob Reiner). The secret to Spinal Tap’s success is its believability and the secret to its believability is that the three principals – Guest, McKean and Shearer – are all accomplished musicians who played their instruments and wrote the original songs for the band. The Spinal Tap songs aren’t necessarily over the top silly; many of them are so subtle and dry the humor might be lost out of context.

“Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight,” for example, sounds like a typical hard rock boogie from the era. Only the subtle redundancy in the title lyric gives it away as a comedy song.

The film traces the history of the band from their early incarnations playing Skiffle (as The Originals, later changed to The New Originals when The East End Originals -now The Regulars – threatened suit), British Invasion light-blues (as The Thamesmen) and Psychedelia. Songs like “Gimmie Some Money” and “Listen To the Flower People” are brilliant exercises in writing songs to evoke specific genres and periods. “Gimmie Some Money” could be a Yardbirds outtake.

In some ways “Listen To the Flower People” is actually a better-constructed song than many in the ephemeral genre it lampoons.

Christopher Guest was born a diplomat’s son and holds the title of Baron. He studied classical music formally before falling into folk and bluegrass music. He holds an honorary doctorate and serves on the board of trustees for the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Michael McKean is the son of Gilbert McKean, a founder of Decca Records. His acting and comedy career got its start with a breakout role on Laverne & Shirley as Lenny of “Lenny and Squiggy.” In 1979, the fictitious musical duo Lenny & the Squigtones released Lenny & Squiggy Present Lenny and the Squigtones, featuring Nigel Tufnel on guitar.

Harry Shearer started as a child actor, originally cast to be in Leave It to Beaver, and is best known for his voice-over work on The Simpsons, where he portrays Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders, Reverend Lovejoy, Kent Brockman, Dr. Hibbert and Principal Skinner, among others. Before Spinal Tap, he and McKean worked together as part of the comedy team The Credibility Gap, and all three had less than pleasurable stints on Saturday Night Live.

12 years after Spinal Tap, Guest made the first of four (to date) mockumentary comedies featuring a recurring troop of gifted comedians and actors such as Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Bob Balaban, Fred Willard, Parker Posey and Jane Lynch. The resulting Waiting For Guffman is brilliant for its performances, but especially for its music. Although Guest is the only Spinal Tap member to appear on camera in Guffman, he assembled his old musical collaborators to write the songs for Red, White and Blaine, a small town community theater play about the history of Blaine, Missouri for its Sesquicentennial celebration.

Guest is nothing short of hilarious in Guffman as Corky St. Clair, a mediocre-at-best theater director who has ended up in Blaine, where the townsfolk consider him a genius. The entire cast shines, especially Parker Posey as Libby Mae Brown, the queen of the Dairy Queen. But the songs, written by Guest, McKean and Shear, are the real stars of the film.

The parody in the Guffman songs is so accurate it is almost homage. This requires songs that sound like they are from a musical, but not just any musical – a bad musical. Again, the parody is in the believability. Structurally sound, lyrically clever, somehow just mediocre enough as songs to shine as comedy.

“A Penny For Your Thoughts,” written by Guest and McKean is the big Broadway ballad. The song is spot-on its intended source. McKean’s gift for melody comes through here (McKean co-wrote “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” from A Mighty Wind, which was nominated for an Oscar).

“Nothing Ever Happens on Mars” is the big second act crowd pleaser. The audience reaction in the film is half the humor, reinforcing the ensemble ethos behind these films. This gets to the heart of the Christopher Guest mockumentary model: the humor only works in the context of the whole.

Guest et al followed up Guffman in 2000 with the equally brilliant Best in Show. Best in Show lampoons the dog show subculture the way Guffman did small town community theater. Show is not a musical, but there is one hilarious bit where Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara record an album of Terrier-themed songs, Beg For It.  

Best In Show followed the same model that made Waiting for Guffman successful: Guest and Eugene Levy come up with a premise, backstory for the characters and a rough outline of where each scene should go. Then they turn the camera on and let the actors improvise. Every cast member is paid the same and by working with the same actors for each film there is a trust that results in comedic gold.

The biggest commercial success came with the third film in the series, 2003’s A Mighty Wind. This time Guest returned to what he does best: musicals. Again, McKean and Shear were brought on to write the songs, and they all appear in the film as The Folksmen, a fictional folk group roughly based on the Kingston Trio.

A Mighty Wind is loaded with great songs. “Old Joe’s Place,” written by Guest, McKean and Shear, is a perfect send-up of the kind of harmless, almost too-clever folk songs such as the Kingston Trio’s “M.T.A.”

Michael McKean wrote the film’s biggest song with his wife, Annette O’Toole. Although written as parody, “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” is a beautiful song. The lyrics are intentionally trite, which is the only thing that separates the song from other “serious” songs of its ilk. Performed in the film as a duet with Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, the tune was nominated for an Oscar.

It didn’t win, but the title song from the film did win a Grammy. Led by the New Main Street Singers (a lose parody of the New Christy Minstrels), “A Mighty Wind Is Blowin’” written by Guest, McKean and Levy, somehow encapsulates the entire folk idiom. It has the larger than life call of “The Times The Are A-Changin’” or “This Land is Your Land” – without any of the weight or meaning – but with perhaps the funniest final line in all of the Christopher Guest catalog:

Oh a mighty winds a-blowin’, it’s kickin’ up the sand

It’s blowin’ out a message to every woman, child and man

Yes a mighty winds a-blowin’, cross the land and cross the sea

It’s blowin’ peace and freedom, it’s blowin’ equality

Yes it’s blowin’ peace and freedom, it’s blowin’ you and me

The most recent entry in the Guest-ensemble canon, 2006’s For your Consideration, was a disappointment. It’s a shame too; surely if anything deserved lampooning it is the frenzy of ego spurned throughout Hollywood by even a whisper of potential Oscar buzz.

Spinal Tap continues to release albums and make appearances. In 2009 (the 25th anniversary of This is Spinal Tap), Guest, McKean and Shear embarked on the Unwigged Tour, where they performed songs from their entire catalog, including Spinal Tap and the Christopher Guest films, out of character and out of costume.

One highlight from the tour is a song that never actually existed. Audiences for the first time were able to hear “Saucy Jack,” the opening number from Spinal Tap’s as-yet-to-be-produced rock opera about Jack the Ripper. The Tap recorded a version of the newly completed song and offered it as a free download.

The Unwigged Tour served as a retrospective showcase for a body of work equally funny and meaningful. The three entertainers have all had immense success separately – most recently, Guest created and wrote the theme song for the short-lived HBO series Family Tree, which also starred McKean – but together create pure magic. We can only hope that the Unwigged review was not a farewell. Or if it was that it was at least, in the words of Derek Smalls, “a” farewell tour and not “the” farewell tour.

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2 responses

  1. I’m a huge Christopher Guest fan. A Mighty Wind is one of my all time favorites. Great post!

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