Eric Idle (writer/director), The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash
1001 Albums To Hear Before Your iPod Battery Dies, Part Nine
The Rutles, The Rutles
Sometime in the early 1960s, a mop-topped quartet of British musicians took the world by storm. No, not that one. This quartet gained international fame almost overnight, fame for which they proved supremely unprepared. The Rutles, so-named because they began as a one-off sketch on Eric Idle’s show Rutland Television Weekend, hit so close to the Beatles’ actual history that Paul and Ringo supposedly couldn’t watch the finished show.
Eric Idle has a history of weak, uninspiring choices following his Monty Python years. But this one choice probably rescued his name from premature anonymity. Teaming with Neil Innes, who wrote some of Monty Python’s funniest musical segments; Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels; and a selection of top-quality British session musicians, Idle managed to create a band that both honored the Beatles, and challenged Beatlemania’s continuing cult-like adoration.
Emerging from the Cavern Rutland, the band found an unlikely champion in a middle-aged tradesman who didn’t understand music at all. A series of ham-handed business arrangements makes the Rutles a lucrative proposition for record producers, merchandisers, and filmmakers—but the Rutles themselves get ripped off, seeing tiny percentages of the money made off their names. It doesn’t take long before drugs and infighting threaten to overtake the band.
The parallels with the actual Beatles are more than slight. The sudden rise, global popularity, and massive flame-out mirror the Beatles’ trajectory point-for-point. Ringo Starr reported having difficulty watching the finished mockumentary, which hit too close to home, and Paul McCartney had a frosty response. John Lennon, however, called it hilarious, and George Harrison contributed to the production, even appearing onscreen. (The next year, Harrison co-produced Life of Brian.)
Neil Innes’ compositions, most supposedly written during a two-week hot streak in 1977, sound so close to the Beatles, they scarcely count as parody. Early tracks like “Goose-Step Mama” and “Hold My Hand,” mimic the Beatles’ early, American-influenced rock-and-rollers. Later tracks venture into nostalgia with “Doubleback Alley,” psychedelia on “Piggy in the Middle,” and rootless anger on “Get Up and Go.” The soundtrack plays like an unironic Beatles retrospective.
This earnest, ambitious musical texture, available as a separate album for those who appreciate its artistry, contrasts with Idle’s glib tone tone. Idle, who plays both a Rutle and the video host, guides viewers through the Rutles’ tumultuous arc, which we watch with pained awareness of where everything will end. Though Christopher Guest’s Spinal Tap is often credited with starting the “mockumentary” fad, Idle pioneered the format five years prior.
Idle’s characters show glib self-awareness, often speaking directly into the camera: they know they’re in a documentary, and probably know where they’re headed. Interviews with the Rutles’ purported contemporaries, including Mick Jagger and Paul Simon, indicate a deep appreciation of the band’s art, but also an awareness that the group was ultimately doomed. With a “knew-it-all-along” shrug, witnesses describe a ship setting sail with its decks already on fire.
|The Rutles, from left: Neil Innes, Ricky Fataar, Eric Idle, and John Halsey|
Of the actors playing the Rutles, only Idle (who lip-synchs his vocals) and Innes have significant speaking lines. The other band members, bassist Ricky Fataar and drummer John Halsey, speak little; they were hired primarily as musicians. Fataar cut two albums and toured extensively with the Beach Boys, while Halsey was a regular session musician for Lou Reed, Joe Cocker, and Joan Armatrading. Their musical bona fides are unimpeachable.
As stated above, the audience already understands where the Rutles’ trajectory is headed. While happy lyrics and playfully inventive composition keeps Rutlemania fans distracted, the band’s internal dissensions become increasingly visible. As they work less closely, the band’s art starts suffering, and they begin displaying embarrassing, sprawling pseudo-creativity. It becomes clear the band members need one another, but can’t stand each other.
Eventually, we already know, the band splinters. Some members return to the anonymity from which they originated, while others keep trying to produce art, but remain haunted by their past. Asked directly whether the Rutles will ever get back together, Mick Jagger, looking like a man caught with his pants around his ankles, gasps: “I hope not.” So do we, because they’re worth more as a memory than a living force.
Idle and Innes, plus part-time contributors George Harrison and Michael Palin, infuse the Rutles story with fast, Python-esque humor. But it’s the comedy of a perfectly choreographed train wreck. We almost feel guilty taking pleasure in watching the Rutles self-destruct. Yet the Rutles’ tragedy is so woven into our cultural consciousness, we need that laughter, just to understand the depths of our own pain.