“Saturday Night Live’s” creator-producer Lorne Michaels made no bones about taking the British comedy series “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” as an inspiration for his show. In 1978, fans of both shows probably wished that the two comedic styles could be combined as fervently as Beatles fans hoped for a Beatles reunion at that time. Combine all three of those concepts, and you get The Rutles.
Of course, The Rutles wasn’t strictly a Monty Python project. Its main progenitor was only one Python member, Eric Idle, who co-wrote, -directed, and starred in the TV-movie. But it certainly had Python’s fingerprints all over it. Michael Palin played a small role in the movie, and Python “guest contributor” Neil Innes performed in the film and wrote all of its songs in ersatz Beatles style. As a Python/”SNL” collaboration (Michaels and cast members of the original “SNL” appear), it satisfied comedy fans and Beatles buffs quite handily.
The Rutles charts the rise and fall of the movie’s titular, Beatles-like rock group, and the movie’s greatest success is in its uncanny creations of high points in the Beatles’ career. Innes, Idle, one-time Beach Boys member Ricky Fataar, and John Halsey serve as adequate stand-ins for John, Paul, George, and Ringo. As fake Beatles, the first two provide the biggest laughs. Idle captures Paul McCartney’s infinite cheeriness wonderfully, and Innes definitively captures John Lennon’s acid wit.
But despite the wealth of Beatles myth to satirize, the movie is actually at its funniest when it pokes fun at the documentary form itself. Idle also plays the story’s on-screen narrator, and one of the movie’s best bits is at the start, as Idle is photographed from a van that keeps moving faster and faster away from him, so that Idle has to run to stay on-camera while telling the story. Another great bit is when Idle interviews an elderly African-American blues singer who claims that The Rutles stole their style and music from him, only to have the man’s wife berate him and tell Idle that her husband tries to make the same claim to every documentarian who visits him..
The movie’s highlight is definitely Innes’ uncanny recreation of the Beatles sound in the movie’s ersatz Rutles songs (e.g., “Ouch!” being his version of The Beatles’ “Help!”, “Get Up and Go” in place of “Get Back,” and so on). Many of Innes’ songs, while certainly not as legendary as The Beatles’, are equally as toe-tapping. (The movie’s soundtrack album received a Grammy nomination for Best Comedy Recording.)
As it did 40 years ago, the question remains whether the movie’s comedy plays well, if at all, to anyone unfamiliar with the Beatles mythology. (To that end, the 1984 spoof This Is Spinal Tap deals with a completely fictional group and is far more effective in satirizing musical styles in general.) However, the real Beatles enjoyed it (none more so than George Harrison, who even does a cameo in the movie). So if you’re in the mood for Beatles-approved Beatles satire, The Rutles is surely your ticket to ride.