Guest Gets Serious

Brenda Pike
January 22, 2008
Ken Feil, a scholar-in-residence at Emerson College (left), and Larry Monroe (right) question Christopher Guest during a clinic in the Berklee Performance Center.
Christopher Guest gives a film scoring clinic.
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

When asked about his next project at a Berklee clinic, satirist Christopher Guest joked, "It's a movie about a music school in Boston. Students learning jazz, what they go through." The students filling the Berklee Performance Center laughed nervously.

Their worry was understandable. Some of Guest's more renowned films, This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind, parody musicians. Yet the films also have a hearty amount of sympathy for them, owing to Guest's own involvement with music. Though best known as an actor/director, Guest's next project is an instrumental CD with his oldest friend, David Nichtern, a Berklee alumnus.

"I don't even know how to describe it," Guest said at one of the clinics. "It's spacious, acoustic. Meditation music." Nichtern, in the audience, piped up, "Describe it as a big hit." Other than the group's made-up name, the Bayman Brothers, the album's serious—a musical foray that's not as unusual for Guest as it seems. He'd been a musician for almost twenty years before This Is Spinal Tap, attending the High School of Music and Art in New York and touring with his longtime collaborator Michael McKean's Lenny and the Squigtones.

"Everything in Spinal Tap is based on that tour," Guest said, from a drummer scaring them to death by driving while "under the weather" to a woman from their record label flying in to tell them they couldn't afford to take planes anymore. To add an extra bit of credibility, they even went on tour as Spinal Tap before the movie came out, and Iron Butterfly opened for them. "We just wanted to pass," Guest said. And they did. "[The audience] couldn't hear the words, anyway."

Guest approached the clinics wary of students expecting him to be funny. "The one thing I've never done is stand-up comedy. I don't even know any jokes," he said. But his answers to students' questions were couched in his own deadpan humor. Often his first response was a simple one-syllable answer. He'd wait a beat for the crowd to shift uncomfortably, then elaborate.

Guest related improvisation in films to improvisation in music, pointing out that they're both only spontaneous up to a point. Past that point, you're working within a framework: "If you're playing in B flat, you improvise in B flat," he said. Many hours of preparation go into that one moment of seemingly effortless improvisation. For his movies, he writes the story, the back history of all the characters (a 25-page outline per character), and what will happen in every scene before beginning to shoot.

Asked what was the biggest challenge of his career, Guest joked, "This has been." But getting serious for a moment, he said making For Your Consideration had been difficult. "Making parodies, we have to pull back from reality—it's too stupid or sad," he said. He shared with the students an anecdote that he was never able to include in the movie: In the middle of Guest pitching his first movie, a studio executive fell asleep. He was startled awake a few moments later, and the first words out of his mouth were "Great, let's do it."

Independence from movie studios is very important to Guest. "These are the movies I want to make," said Guest. "They're my cut, not the studio's cut." While the budgets for his films are relatively low, but they still only pay for themselves. "I direct TV commercials so I can afford to make my movies," he said. "It's my way of getting paid for something."

As was appropriate in honoring a career that blends film and music, the tribute concert began with clips from his movies, then transitioned into live performance in the middle of "Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight." Berklee students sang lead on most songs, with Guest either playing electric guitar or just looking on appreciatively. A full band backed them up, including piano, trumpets, saxophones, violins, and cello.

The performances themselves were interspersed with video of musicians congratulating Guest on his honorary doctorate. Steve Vai warned him that he wasn't a real doctor, so he shouldn't "operate on anything but a G string." Elvis Costello played a bit of A Mighty Wind's "Penny for Your Thoughts" and said Guest has "the soul and ear of an artist, but considerably more wit." Tom Hamilton joked that Aerosmith opened for Spinal Tap, and "we all got completely wasted and destroyed the room. Cops came and arrested Nigel and took him to jail for destroying the hotel room. He's not going to see this, is he?"

Guest took it all in stride, working the crowd like a pro. And for the last song, the wall between performers and audience melted as over 50 student and faculty bassists filled the aisles for a rendition of "Big Bottom" that broke Spinal Tap's previous record of 15 bassists onstage. It was a grand finale worthy of the greatest excesses of heavy metal—and of Guest's films.

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