Until the 2004 premiere of Spamalot, the stage musical that he adapted from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), this made-for-TV mockumentary was Eric Idle’s most noteworthy accomplishment outside of the work that he did as a member of the Monty Python comedy troupe. An elaborate spoof of the Beatles told in the form of a TV retrospective about a fictional band, The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash was written by Idle, who also co-directed the piece with Gary Weis, and he plays several roles. A couple of Idle’s fellow Pythons appear, as do several rock-music luminaries—including, wink-wink, one of the real Fab Four, George Harrison. Plus, since Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels produced the project, a number of Not Ready for Prime Time Players show up: Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner.
It would be exaggerating to say that the star wattage completely outshines the material, but that’s close to the truth—some scenes in The Rutles merely re-create famous Beatles moments and/or songs with only the slightest of comedic tweaks. Flip side, the best segments of The Rutles are enjoyably droll. Furthermore, the sheer verisimilitude of the piece, replicating everything from camera angles to costumes to songs, puts The Rutles nearly on par with Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) and Zelig (1983) in terms of impressive mimicry.
The “story” of The Rutles will seem awfully familiar. A group of kids form a scrappy band, become popular with female fans, cohere into a sophisticated musical unit, experiment with drugs and sociopolitical messages, and finally drift apart. (In sum, “a musical legend that will last a lunchtime.”) Although many famous songs are parodied (“Help!” is lampooned by “Ouch!”), many of the tunes are patchworks of Beatles-esque melodies and lyrics. Occasionally, the gags have satirical edge, as when the Beatles’ “Let It Be” is referenced by the Rutles’ “Let It Rot”; considering Paul McCartney’s misgivings about the Let It Be album and the link that project has to the Beatles’ final days, the “Let It Rot” gag has teeth. An even meaner joke of the same stripe is the runner about the Rutles’ manager being preoccupied with his clients’ tight trousers. Presumably Idle meant no disrespect to Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who was gay, but still—a bit nasty, that one. Conversely, Idle occasionally replaces historical figures with totally dissimilar characters, for instance featuring a distaff artist in Nazi regalia where one would expect to find an analogue for Yoko Ono.
For all the care the filmmakers took in re-creating things, some of the best jokes are unrelated to the Beatles—one recurring bit involves Idle playing a TV host who endures an antagonistic relationship with his cameraman. Ultimately, The Rutles does little to tarnish the Beatles’ reputation, but the derivative nature of the piece, as well as the hit-0r-miss quality of the humor, defines The Rutles as a minor effort. Nonetheless, the Rutles concept has endured. Originally introduced during a sketch on a 1970s BBC show that Idle created, the Rutles regrouped in the late ’90s, starred in The Rutles 2: Can’t Buy Me Lunch (2002), and even became a touring band, usually with Idle’s musical partner and the cocreator of the Rutles concept, Neil Innes, occupying center stage.
The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash: FUNKY