Directors: Bill Jones, Ben Timlett, Alan Parker
Stars: Cleese, Idle, Palin, Gilliam, Jones and Chapman (in absentia)
Most people will see this ambitious documentary in its DVD or television formats, but in addition to that it was also offered as a two-hour “special event” beamed into cinemas around the world shortly after the New York premiere. I watched this version, then the six-hour (with commercials) television version as it aired on Bravo a week later.
The “theatrical” version, even as cut-down as it was and preceded by mostly-useless additional footage of the surviving Pythons (and friends etc) being interviewed on their way into the NYC premiere, was well worth the money. Most of the Pythons were good sports about being asked really quite insipid questions in the hubbub outside the NYC theatre (where they were also to receive a BAFTA award for their contribution to comedy), but occasionally the weariness of the promotional “circus” (sorry) they’d been on in the weeks leading up to the NYC event was discernible in their answers. As a comic person myself, it’s quite difficult to be funny “on demand,” which is of course what interviewers always want. Nobody ever asks a ballerina being interviewed to answer the questions while doing a perfect pas de deux, do they? No, they do not.
But on to the documentary itself: as a lifelong student of the Pythons, I found the most interesting parts were the bits I was less familiar with — their lives growing up and their work prior to joining together to form the Circus. The use of clips to illustrate their stories was handled with more aplomb than we have seen in the previous documentaries, and you got more info about their interpersonal relationships. I was particularly pleased to see more footage of their Canadian tour featured, as that was quite a pivotal event in the group’s history on a variety of levels but has until now been little more than a footnote.
But, even after watching the “almost full Monty” as it were (the six-hour version shown on Bravo here), I’m left quite dissatisfied. With all that time, you’d think we’d get a bit more insight into each members’ own creative process, ie exactly where many of their brilliant inventions came from, or how things went from basic idea to polished script. I was surprised that other successful troupe comedians clearly influenced by Python, such as the SCTV crew or the Kids in the Hall, were not involved in this, instead featuring a run of current-crop British comedians (not nearly enough Eddie Izzard, a spiritual Python if ever there was one, and way too much drugged-up Russell Brand, sounding more than a little like the UK’s Sarah Palin).
I was also annoyed that only very selective attention was paid to the post-Python careers of the members, given that having been in Python played a huge role in much of what they did after that. No mention at all of “Out of the Trees” (with Douglas Adams, no less!), “Rutland Weekend Television,” “Ripping Yarns,” Dr. Fegg’s Nasty Book for Boys and Girls, The Odd Job Man, Video Arts, A Liar’s Autobiography, Starship Titanic, Labyrinth, Erik the Viking and a dozen other pre-and-post-Python ventures that played a role in making these men who they are today.
Even more surprising was that there was barely any mention of “Fawlty Towers,” Michael’s travel programmes, or the many films released under the Handmade Films banner, most of which featured at least two Pythons if not more (I still can’t believe there was no mention of Jabberwocky, the film that launched Gilliam as a serious film director!). Nothing about Yellowbeard either, which is a shame since Graham is (naturally) underrepresented. They didn’t even use that famous “final shot” of him in the closet with the rest of the Pythons at the end of the Showtime documentary Parrot Sketch Not Included, though I must give the makers (and broadcasters) credit for including the full-frontal nude shot he did for Life of Brian.
Overall, this is an excellent addition to the considerable amount of documentary work done on Python, but still unsatisfyingly short on minutia and cannot be considered the definitive Python documentary — a real shame, since this is likely to be the last one they ever do. Perhaps “the full Monty” (ie the DVD release) will cover these topics in further detail, but I don’t hold much hope on that score.
Still, as Monty Python are considerably full of awesome, there is plenty to enjoy here, both the classic clips as well as the interviews, which are naturally charming and funny as well. The clips actually work even better viewed in isolation sometimes, especially for younger people who grew up in a post-surrealist society and don’t fully understand the cultural impact Python made on nearly every aspect of the world they now live in. In the theatre I still found myself laughing, even at stuff I’ve seen a thousand times (literally) — there’s not a lot of things in the world you can say that about. Monty Python changed the world far more than I think even they know, and I’m so glad to have been around for the original impact they made on life, the universe, and everything.