In the years since Monty Python slowly drifted apart, Eric Idle has gained a reputation for being the most cynical and money-minded member of the group. Whatever the individual merits of Spamalot or He's Not the Messiah!, their very existence gives off the air of a man living on past glories, no longer capable of producing anything new or even being funny. It's a reputation which Idle himself has played on, through his recent Greedy Bastard tour and his contributions to the Pythons' YouTube channel.
The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash can be viewed as the point where the funny, creative and inventive Eric Idle started to be replaced by a lazier writer, who would string out a single joke not until it wasn't funny, but for as long as the budget allowed. The story of the Prefab Four, whose career mirrors that of The Beatles, may have worked well as a short, snappy gag on Rutland Weekend Television or Saturday Night Live. Looking at the feature-length version, it's massively dated, not funny and really quite boring.
The first criticism that could be laid at The Rutles' door is that it is not cinematic, or at least not cinematic enough to hold up to the others Pythons' ventures into filmmaking. This would, however, be a fallacy since The Rutles is by its very nature a product of TV. Not only did the characters start out on Rutland Weekend Television, but the film was made with the backing of NBC. Moreover, there are many made-for-TV films which can stand up to their big-screen counterparts, and some can even better them. The 1988 TV film of Jack the Ripper, starring Michael Caine, is tighter and more dramatic than, say, Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger.
The problem with The Rutles is not that it is a TV film. The problem is that it very quickly exhausts itself, both aesthetically and in terms of the material. The sketch in the original series worked because the series was playing on the cheap-and-cheerful nature of local news and current affairs coverage in Britain. It was believable that the Prefab Four (as they were called) could exist as a band, and could have had something of a Beatles career in miniature. Stripped of this context, the conceit quickly runs out of steam and the parody looks all too simple.
The Rutles' script is very weak and aimless, with much of it feeling like reheated leftovers of Monty Python. When the Pythons were scripting their TV series, sketches were run past the group by individual members who wrote separately, with the only rule being that if it wasn't funny, it didn't get in. Idle famously wrote on his own among the Pythons, and both this and aspects of Rutland Weekend Television feel like old sketchbooks, crammed full of all the material he had written which wasn't funny enough to get past his colleagues.
The Rutles takes us through the career of the Prefab Four, comprising Dirk McQuickly (Idle), Barry Wom (John Halsey), Stig O'Hara (Ricky Fataar) and Ron Nasty (Neil Innes). Their career mirrors that of The Beatles almost exactly, as the interviewer character (Idle) takes all through the various milestones and examines all the highs and lows. There's the early gigs at the Cavern Club and in Hamburg, along with the group attempting to crack America with various gigs and an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
There's a restaging of the "bigger than Jesus" fiasco, with Ron Nasty being misquoted as saying the Rutles were "bigger than God", when in fact all he had said was "bigger than Rod " (Stewart). Instead of experimenting with LSD, the group fall under the influence of tea, and rather than marrying a Japanese artist with hippie tendencies, Ron Nasty meets a German artist named Chastity, who likes to dress up as a Nazi. Every Beatles release is pastiched and parodied to the hilt - The Magical Mystery Tour becomes The Tragical History Tour, Let It Be becomes Let It Rot, and 'Love Me Do' becomes 'Rut Me Do'.
Many of these jokes are passingly witty in their own way, and to give the filmmakers credit, they have recreated the look of The Beatles very well. The costumes are pretty immaculate, particularly for the psychedelic period around 'I Am The Walrus'. The animated section copies Yellow Submarine so closely that you would swear you were watching deleted scenes from the original. And no-one can doubt the talent of Neil Innes, whose compositions mimic The Beatles from the lyrics right down to the chord progressions.
But despite the impressive production values in places, the film is still essentially a collection of bits. It is a hotch-potch of jokes delivered in the style of Idle's Python material which will produce the odd knowing snigger or wry chuckle among Beatles fans or Python aficionados. For those with little or no experience of either, there is no way in to the central conceit, and it can feel at times like two schoolboys giggling and making up silly names to take the mick out of each other's heroes. If anything it will make you end up hating The Beatles even more than you thought was possible.
Comparisons have naturally been drawn between The Rutles and This Is Spinal Tap, Rob Reiner's fantastic mockumentary which premiered eight years later. Fans will argue 'til the cows come home over which film truly created the mockumentary, or over the potential influence that Idle's work had over Reiner's. But the fact remains that Spinal Tap is the superior film, for one simple reason: we believed that the band could be real.
Spinal Tap worked, both as a film and as a comic conceit, because it had a plot and characters that you cared about. It wasn't just a string of random jokes or jibes at rock'n'roll, it was about the people in the middle of that who were too lovably stupid to realise how much of a joke they were. The more time you spent with David St. Hubbins or Nigel Tufnell, the more lovable and believable their idiocy became.
The Rutles mirror The Beatles so closely that the band never takes on a life of their own. While both bands eventually became real, Tap felt like a bona fide rock band while The Rutles still felt like cardboard cut-outs. This is consolidated by the different styles of the films. The Rutles feels self-contained, like a highly choreographed sketch (which it is), while Spinal Tap is freeform and free-flowing, and doesn't feel like people reading lines. Idle may not have had the money or perhaps even the talent that Reiner managed to obtain on Spinal Tap, but you can't help feeling that he should have experimented more.
The best scene by far in The Rutles ironically involves none of the actual band. It takes place outside Rutles Corps HQ, where George Harrison (in a cameo appearance) is interviewing the band's lawyer, Eric Manchester (Michael Palin). Manchester is denying that Rutles Corps has been subject to pilfering or looting, while dozens of people pour in and out of the building helping themselves to office equipment, plants and memorabilia. It's a well-paced gag with roots in reality, which works because we never feel that the actors are in on the joke (even though they are). It's also a timely reminder of how The Beatles and Monty Python frequently crossed paths: it was Harrison who would stump up the money needed to make Life of Brian shortly after.
The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash is a massive disappointment. Even to those who have never been exposed to either Monty Python or Spinal Tap, it will come across as flat and tired, squandering quality song-writing and production by always going for the obvious joke. Cameos from the likes of Paul Simon and Mick Jagger are largely wasted, and the main performers don't have the timing or charm to carry the jokes. The only thing The Rutles really needs is a proper script and some imagination.