Review: ‘Harry Shearer: Up To Eleven’ at The Kennedy Center

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My father first showed me This Is Spinal Tap when I was about fifteen. It was immediately one of my absolute favorite films. I’ve seen it at least a dozen times since then, tried and failed to learn to play guitar that way, and bought all three Spinal Tap albums. The film, of course, is always funny.

Harry Shearer and the members of Spinal Tap. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

But there truly is something to be said about seeing it on a big screen for the first time, with a room full of people who have also seen it multiple times. I was likely one of the youngest people in the audience last night, but I can’t say it mattered. Laughter endures, and last night was like seeing it for the first time, discovering anew just how brilliant it truly is, and it was wonderful.

Last evening, July 19, as part of the District of Comedy Festival, the Terrace Theater hosted a live screening of the iconic 1984 mock documentary about the fictional “loudest band in England” (from which the term “mockumentary” was coined), followed by an intimate audience-facilitated Q&A with actor Harry Shearer, who plays bassist Derek Smalls. Shearer starred in the film alongside Christopher Guest (Nigel Tufnel, lead guitar), Michael McKean (David St. Hubbins, also lead guitar), and Rob Reiner (Marti DiBergi, fictional director of the documentary).

Shearer – who is physically much smaller in person than I’d expected, radiated warmth (at one point, requesting that the spot operator turn off his spotlight so he could see us better to take questions). He entered to a raucous standing ovation and spent a little over an hour swapping lively stories and anecdotes with the audience.

He shared stories about working on Spinal Tap, his eight years as a child actor working with Jack Benny, his thoughts on what it means that the film has become so iconic, and his classical piano training and abandonment of piano for bass. Shearer is a consummate bass player in real life in addition to playing both Derek Smalls and Mark/Marta Shubb, the bassist in another famous Guest-Shearer-McKean mockumentary, A Mighty Wind, and plays bass guitar and double bass professionally.

While most famous for his work on Spinal Tap and The Simpsons, on which he voices over fifteen characters, this evening was specifically centered around Spinal Tap. He spoke at length about the writing process for the film (his first of seven with Guest and co.) and his unfamiliarity with improv at the time of its filming in 1982 – it was not planned as the long-form improv it became, but it became clear throughout the writing process that they couldn’t script a documentary.

He also compared his writing process with Guest to his time spent as a writer and cast member on Saturday Night Live in 1979-1980 (he seemed to prefer writing with Guest) and mentioned several hours worth of ultimately unused but incredibly rich footage cut from the final release of the film.

My particular favorite mention was of a subplot involving an all-female rock band featuring Sherrie Curry of The Runaways, leading to the very noticeable herpes sores the band sports in one scene in the final cut, which is never discussed. An audience member mentioned seeing some additional material, and Shearer said that there is a lot available on DVD and online, if people are willing to look.

I also loved hearing him talk about how none of them ever tried to make the others break character – partly because it’s improv and very specific to shoot, but also because he felt it would do the story of the band a disservice. The goal was not necessarily to only be funny – that would come naturally, and did – but to be truthful. And clearly, it worked, because other rock bands have complained that the satire is too spot on and the film has endured for thirty-five years.

Shearer claimed that when they set out to make the film none of them had any idea what they were doing, but thought last night he could safely admit that they probably did, and I wholeheartedly agree. It’s a brilliant comedy with brilliant music that must be seen to be experienced, and having the opportunity to see the film in this format was nothing short of cathartic.

Chris Guest, Shearer, and McKean have toured live as Spinal Tap a few times in the past; though there are no plans for any future Tap reunions, Shearer has recently launched a new Lukewarm Water Live: An Adventure in Loud Music solo tour as Derek Smalls, on the heels of his new album Smalls Change: Meditations Upon Ageing, which began this past April 14 with the Louisiana Philharmonic. Last night’s talkback with Shearer replaced an originally scheduled stop on Small’s tour, which would have seen Shearer, as Smalls, perform with the National Symphony Orchestra.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with no intermission.

Harry Shearer: Up To Eleven performed on Thursday, July 19, 2018, at the Terrace Theater at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F Street NW, in Washington, DC. For information about upcoming events or to purchase tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or view their schedule online. To follow Harry Shearer, visit his website.

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Emily Gilson
Emily Gilson makes art. A DC-based actor, rescue kitty mommy, historian, and professional Christmas caroler, she loves all things nerdy, British, chocolately, and caffeinated, and moonlights as a front-of -house staff person and walking tour manager at Ford’s Theatre when not creating things. A native Washingtonian, Emily holds a double BA in Drama Studies and Medieval History and Literature from Purchase College, SUNY, has studied with the Studio Theatre Acting Conservatory and the Theatre Lab, and is a 2012 alumna of the Overtures musical theatre intensive at Signature Theatre. 2015 will mark her 3rd season as a company member with 42nd Street Singers, a costumed caroling group comprised of local musical theatre and opera talent. She thinks it would be awesome to be able to time travel and is entirely unashamed of having seen 'Phantom of the Opera' – the first show she ever saw - roughly once every decade. www.emilygilsonactor.com