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15 Things You Might Not Know About This Is Spinal Tap

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This is Spinal Tap may not have invented the mockumentary genre, but it certainly popularized it. Rob Reiner’s cult classic comedy—which starred Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer—turned the fictional heavy metal band of its title into bona fide musical superstars. It also called into question what the exact dimensions of an on-stage Stonehenge should be. Here are 15 things you might not know about the 1984 film.

1. THIS IS SPINAL TAP WASN’T AN IMMEDIATE HIT.

Like Smell the Glove, the new album that the band is promoting in the film, This Is Spinal Tap didn’t immediately find its audience. In preview screenings, some viewers complained about the camerawork, offering up such feedback as “Too shaky. Get new cameraman.” It wasn’t until the film was released on home video that it truly found its audience; it has since gone on to garner loads of critical acclaim. In 2011, Time Out London named This is Spinal Tap the Best Comedy of All Time, noting that “It’s sublimely funny and sharp—a comedy built for the long haul which matures with each viewing.” Entertainment Weekly, Empire, The New York Times, and the American Film Institute have all singled the film out in similar lists.

2. MANY VIEWERS BELIEVED IT WAS AN ACTUAL DOCUMENTARY.

Reiner thinks he knows the reason why it took so long for fans to come around to the film. “When Spinal Tap initially came out, everybody thought it was a real band,” Reiner told Newsweek in 2010. “Everyone said, ‘Why would you make a movie about a band that no one has heard of?’ The reason it did go over everybody’s head was it was very close to the bone.” This despite the fact that the credits state the band is fictional, “And there’s no Easter Bunny, either!”

3. OZZY OSBOURNE WAS ONE SUCH VIEWER.

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Ozzy Osbourne was among the audience members who assumed the band was real. When he learned the truth, he admitted that he should have known better. “They seemed quite tame compared to what we got up to,” he once said.

4. IT’S GOT AN 8.0 RATING ON IMDB… OUT OF 11.

Ratings are a regular feature on the Internet Movie Database, with every title featuring a user-generated rating on a scale of one to 10. Well, almost every title. This is Spinal Tap has its very own scale, and it goes to 11.

5. ROB REINER DOESN’T WEAR SPANDEX WELL.

Reiner had originally planned to play a fourth member of the band, but changed his mind when Shearer reportedly told him that he “didn't look good in spandex.”

6. ANY SIMILARITIES TO BLACK SABBATH ARE PURELY COINCIDENTAL.

In one of the film’s most iconic moments, a miscommunication in measurements causes what is supposed to be a life-sized version of Stonehenge to end up being small enough that it “was in danger of being crushed by a dwarf.” A similar incident occurred on Black Sabbath’s “Born Again” tour in 1983, except their monument was too big to fit on the stage. Given that This is Spinal Tap was released a year later, that Black Sabbath would have influenced the film seems logical. But the movie scene in question was actually filmed in 1982, as part of a 20-minute short the production team used to get a greenlight.

7. THE FILM HIT TOO CLOSE TO HOME FOR MANY FAMOUS MUSICIANS.

“We do love that, the musicians who have said, ‘Man, I can't watch Spinal Tap, it’s too much like my life,’” Harry Shearer says in John Kenneth Muir’s book, Best in Show: The Films of Christopher Guest and Company. “That's the highest compliment of all. It beats all the Oscar nominations we never got.” It’s a compliment the movie’s cast and crew hear quite often. Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, Eddie Vedder, and Dee Snider are just a few of the musicians who have referenced similarities between their own lives and the movie’s plot.

8. IT MADE TOM WAITS AND THE EDGE CRY.

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Tom Waits once said that when he watched the film for the first time, he cried because of its realism. The Edge shared a similar sentiment in 2005, when U2 was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: “It's so hard to keep things fresh, and not to become a parody of yourself,” the legendary guitarist told the crowd of onlookers. “And if you've ever seen that movie Spinal Tap, you will know how easy it is to parody what we all do. The first time I ever saw it, I didn't laugh. I wept. I wept because I recognized so much and so many of those scenes.”

9. MOST OF THE DIALOGUE WAS AD-LIBBED.

Because the vast majority of the film was improvised, all four of the film’s main stars—Reiner, McKean, Guest, and Shearer—received equal billing on the script. But because all of the actors contributed to the script, the foursome lobbied the Writers Guild of America to give every member of the cast a writing credit. The request was promptly denied.

10. ALL THAT IMPROVISATION RESULTED IN MORE THAN 100 HOURS OF FOOTAGE.

Reiner managed to edit the film’s original theatrical release down to 82 minutes, but fans of the film have very actively sought out the unedited footage. In 1998, the Criterion Collection released its only single-layer, double-sided disc that included more than an hour of additional footage (it’s now out of print, but can be found on eBay). MGM’s DVD features an additional 70 minutes of footage. But the holy grail of alternate versions is a four-and-a-half-hour bootleg edition.

11. A SLOPPY SECONDS SUBPLOT WAS REMOVED.

The film’s original script included a fun subplot which explained why the band members are often seen with cold sores on their lips: all three of them had slept with the lead singer of their opening act, and she gave them all herpes.

12. THE BAND IS NOW ONLY SEMI-FICTIONAL.

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Though Spinal Tap was created as a pure parody, the film’s success has led to a legitimate music career for McKean, Guest, and Shearer. In the three decades since the film’s debut, the trio has released albums, done numerous interviews in character, and performed in concert. “We played the Pyramid Stage,” Guest told The Wrap in 2013. “There were 130,000 people there or something. Since the film 30 years ago we've gone on tour, playing Wembley, the [Royal] Albert Hall, Carnegie Hall… It's weird but great. The fiction became real.” In the same interview, Guest also hinted that they may be returning to the stage this year.

13. THE FILM HAS A (SORT OF) SEQUEL.

As part of the marketing campaign for their 1992 album, Break Like the Wind, a made-for-television sequel to the original film, The Return of Spinal Tap, was released. In addition to concert footage from a show at the Royal Albert Hall, the 58-minute film featured an appearance by The Folksmen, the fictional folk music band that McKean, Guest, and Shearer created in 1984 for an episode of Saturday Night Live. They have subsequently “opened” in concert for Spinal Tap as The Folksmen, and were once booed off the stage in New York City. The Folksmen also appeared in Guest’s 2003 mockumentary, A Mighty Wind.

14. NORWEGIANS KNOW THE FILM AS HELP! WE ARE IN THE POP BUSINESS!

When This is Spinal Tap was released on video in Norway in 1984, its title was translated as Help! We are in the Pop Business! This caused some Norwegian filmgoers to believe it was related to Airplane!, as that had been released as Help! We are Flying! a few years earlier.

15. THE FILM WILL LIVE ON AND ON AND ON.

In 2002, This Is Spinal Tap was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry because it is a film that is considered “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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