Friday, June 11, 2010


Now out on Blu ray and DVD:


(Dir. Aubrey Powell, 2010)

Way before I was a hardcore movie fanatic I was a hardcore Monty Python fanatic - I'm talking when I was a kid in the early '80s here. 

I went to late shows of their movies, I had all their records and books, I saved up money to buy a VCR solely to record episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus - I had it bad. I still love 'em and go to see revival screenings of MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL and LIFE OF BRIAN whenever they're in my area despite owning the DVDs, so, of course, whenever there's new product such as last year's excellent documentary mini-series "Monty Python: Almost The Truth - The Lawyer's Cut" I'm all over it. 

However there is a huge threat to all my nostalgic affection: Eric Idle. The former Python has spent the last decade, in the words of another former Python Terry Jones, "regurgitating Python." Idle has toured playing the songs in a show entitled "Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python", mounted a wildly successful Broadway production based on HOLY GRAIL - "Spamalot", and now has turned to LIFE OF BRIAN for the new musical oratorio NOT THE MESSIAH (HE'S A VERY NAUGHTY BOY)

Because I'm a long time fan I just had to see it the second it dropped on Blu ray. With the help of long-time collaborator/conductor John Du Prez, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and a bunch of trained operatic singers, Idle reduces the savage satire of the classic film into only slightly racy almost family friendly fodder. Appropriating Handel's "Messiah" in misguided attempts to flesh out character threads that were best left as comic asides, we get songs about the Roman Centurion that raped Brian's mother and Idle's beloved bit about an anachronistic wish for a sex change, is now recast as a lame unfunny ballad. NOT THE MESSIAH basically is "Spamalot 2" though there are a few differences. 

It's not an in costume performance - though a few performers are outfitted like their characters - it's a filmed live performance for a radio broadcast. There's also that giant orchestra and chorus involved too. But infinitely more important, because it was the 40th anniversary of the group (October of last year) Python members Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, and Terry Jones were on hand to reprise their roles or just appear for the sake of good will (like Gilliam appears to). 

The only other surviving Python, John Cleese, was not present presumably because he was off rolling his eyes somewhere. It doesn't improve matters that the singers (William Ferguson and Shannon Mercer) recruited to play the pivotal parts of Brian and Judith, wonderfully previously portrayed by the late great Python leading man Graham Chapman and Sue Jones-Davies (now Mayor of Aberystwyth, Wales), look and sound more like they should be in a Prince Charles and Lady Diana musical.

I was also surprised that Brian's mother Mandy is played by a woman! One of the most hilarious factors of LIFE OF BRIAN was Terry Jones amped-up Pepperpot performance as the protagonist's disapproving ball-busting Mama. Here renowned soprano Rosalind Plowright takes the part, and more than a little of the narrative's point-of-view, and though she's a fine vocalist it's a slap in the face of the brilliant bite of BRIAN. Especially since Jones was there and could have done it. Missed opportunity city.

The music is immaculate in its presentation, but the new songs are repetitive, obvious, and supremely forgettable. The only highlights are the Python cameos - it's funny to see Palin in full Margaret Thatcher-ish drag introduce the show. Palin by contrast is definitely the only Python who has maintained his figure. 

It's also nice to see Palin in his old Pontius Pilate garb proving he can still pull off the lisp. Jones and Gilliam are just there for glorified cameos neither of which really registers and Idle's hammy line readings seriously grated on me, though the packed Royal Albert Hall audience ate it all up, cheering at every familiar phrase. 

The crowd did appear to love it, and maybe I would've too had I been there, but watching it at home, even on a spiffy new Blu ray, was a sad trying experience. Looks like Idle will be singing "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life" (which was also in "Spamalot") and "The Lumberjack Song" (here acting as the encore) for the rest of his life. I once considered Idle the greediest Python, now I think of him as the Python who can't move on. 

In a few years from now when he unveils his inevitable THE MEANING OF LIFE musical I hope that I've moved on enough to skip it. I'd like to think by then that I would have had enough of these warmed over retreads, but then I am a glutton for punishment... 

More later...

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