And now for something completely different...
Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyer’s Cut) is a documentary series that knows its audience. It runs six hours, and that’s quite a bit of screen time to devote to anything; on top of that, the story of England’s most popular and influential comedy troupe isn’t exactly an unknown story. They’ve been the subject of several previous documentaries, from the 20th anniversary duo Life of Python/Parrot Sketch Not Included to the recent Monty Python: The Other British Invasion and countless books, including the bulky, comprehensive The Pythons, a coffee-table oral history with a more-than-passing resemblance to the companion book to The Beatles Anthology. Now, it would seem, they’ve made a documentary series that rivals the Fab Four’s in its sheer volume and exhaustive detail.
But that’s the thing about us Python fans: we’re an obsessive lot, and even though we may know most of this stuff, even though we’ve probably seen these clips dozens (if not hundreds) of times before, even though six hours is a helluva lot of time to watch anything, when I heard that there was a six hour documentary on Python, my immediate response was as follows: “When do I get to see it?”
Having done so, it gives me great pleasure to report that Almost the Truth is a joy to watch, an insightful and thoroughly entertaining jaunt through a rich and unreasonably funny body of work. Perhaps most importantly, it takes itself with exactly the right degree of seriousness; it has a sense of humor about the many documentaries that have preceded it, its epic length, even its title. It is, in fact, exactly as irreverent as you’d like a Monty Python doc to be—starting with the blowing-up-the-suits legal disclaimer and opening theme, a riff on the Life of Brian theme song, sung by Sonia Jones (who sang the original) and changing with each passing episode (by episode five, the lyrics are along the lines of “Python/ I’m so fucking sick of Monty Python/ and this documentary…”).
The first episode, “The Not-So-Interesting Beginnings,” fills in the details of the six men’s backgrounds and their social and cultural influences, including The Goon Show and Beyond the Fringe (both glimpsed in perfectly-chosen clips). As the title indicates, this kind of “I met Mike at Oxford” business can be something of a chore to get through, but here it’s done in such a way to spotlight that Python wasn’t a thing that just happened—it was the natural culmination of their satiric influences, their college revues, and their earlier TV work.
That show takes us right up to the forming of the group for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which is the primary focus of part two, “The Much Funnier Second Episode.” Here we see how the show came together, with the surviving Pythons remembering their disastrous pitch meeting, recalling the influence of Spike Milligan, and showing some amazing artifacts (including the original title brainstorming sheets). There are a surplus of great stories (“The Lumberjack Song” was written in “about twenty minutes”), and the first appearances of some of the all-star fans who pop up throughout the series, including Steve Coogan, Russell Brand, Simon Pegg, Dan Aykroyd, Tim Roth, and Stephen Merchant (co-creator of the original Office). Through their reflections and the insights of the Pythons (but, significantly, without any pushy narration), the sociological and political overtones of their work are examined, but in an enlightening and enjoyable way—thoughtful, but without over-intellectualizing. They also make a legitimate (and successful, or at least as successfully as these things can be) attempt to explain what, exactly, it was that made them so very funny.
Episode three, “And Now, The Sordid Personal Bits,” continues with the Flying Circus years, dealing with their BBC battles over censorship and archiving (amazingly, several innovative BBC series—including those of Milligan and Peter Cook & Dudley Moore—were “wiped” to recycle tape), and their first attempts at live shows and vinyl (including the marvelous prank of the alternating grooves on the Matching Tie and Handkerchief album). But, as promised in the title, the primary focus this hour is the personalities—who each of them were, what they did, and what they brought to the troupe. From there, it flows beautifully into the tales of troubled Graham Chapman (seen mostly in clips from a candid and thorough 1980 TV interview), and the group’s reactions to his homosexuality and, later, his alcoholism. Indeed, his drinking put a real splinter in his writing partnership with John Cleese, which may have ultimately been a factor in Cleese’s decision to leave the show before the somewhat uneven fourth series.
“The Ultimate Holy Grail Episode” begins with some of their struggle to cross over to American audiences (covered in greater detail in the Monty Python Conquers America hour of the Other British Invasion set), including their unsuccessful first film, And Now For Something Completely Different. But this one is mostly about their most iconic film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail: how it came to be, how the funds were raised (it was partially financed by English rock bands, including Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd), and the lengthy writing process. The shoot itself is recalled in great detail by the Pythons, with the help of some splendid behind-the-scenes footage; they vividly relate the struggles of shooting the difficult picture on a low budget, and the occasionally contradictory co-directing relationship of “the two Terrys” (Jones and Gilliam), as well as dealing with a leading man (Chapman) who was at the height of his alcoholism. The stories of the difficult post-production (they went through 13 cuts) are fascinating, but the most surprising revelation comes at the end: Holy Grail was one of Elvis’ favorite movies, one that he would watch repeatedly and quote from liberally (they even interview “Memphis Mafia” member Jerry Schilling for confirmation).
Episode five, “Lust for Glory,” deals entirely with their 1979 film Life of Brian, starting with the journey of the story; they booted their original idea of an outright parody of Christ himself to a broader spoof of religion and biblical epics. “The most blasphemous things got edited out,” notes Eric Idle, though several of them are relayed here (and are awfully funny, at least if you’re not too rigorous in your dogma). Not surprisingly, the suits were scared of the idea and its controversial overtones; their first deal for financing fell apart, and the film was ultimately rescued by fan George Harrison, who formed the (ultimately prolific) company Handmade Films specifically to bankroll Brian, mainly because he just wanted to see it (“It’s the most anyone has paid for a cinema ticket in history,” Idle notes with a grin). Of the resulting film, Jones proclaims, “It’s not blasphemous at all… it’s heretical!” but that didn’t prevent a fierce controversy on both sides of the pond. We get a riveting clip of Cleese and Palin debating the film with would-be censors on a BBC chat show, and footage of the subsequent furor in the States (which, incredibly, appears to have been initially precipitated by Strom Thurmond’s wife). The hour ends as the film does, however, with “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” (and an explanation of how they came up with that beautifully subversive closing number).
The final episode, titled “Finally! The Last Episode (Ever) (For Now…)” begins with recollections and clips from their rollicking Hollywood Bowl shows before moving on to their final collaboration, the 1983 film Monty Python and the Meaning of Life. Again, we have the marvelous opportunity to hear about wonderful material that never came to be, as well as their internal struggles to come up with a script that worked, and had a definitive “theme.” British comic and actor Sanjeev Bhaskar (one of the most articulate of the Python followers interviewed) makes a fine point—at least in the eyes of this Meaning of Life defender—about the popular, accepted opinion of that final film, and how that consensus doesn’t quite match up with how the film actually plays (uproariously, for the most part). The episode—and the series—reaches its emotional pinnacle with Chapman’s 1989 death; the memorial service, seen in clips and supplemented by the group’s memories (“We lost all of our Britishness,” Cleese recalls) are genuinely powerful. This is the series’ greatest achievement, really; because of the length, and its attentiveness to the group dynamics, we really feel as though we’ve been through at least some part of this with them.
During that last hour, as they’re beating and punching away at that Meaning of Life script and trying to mold it into something that satisfies their desire for comic perfection, we realize that the entire documentary, taken as a whole, is in fact one of the most thorough and detailed examinations of the creative process that’s ever been put to film. These masterworks of comedy didn’t come easy (okay, it sounds like maybe “The Lumberjack Song” did, but aside from that…); throughout the series and each of those laboriously assembled screenplays, there were struggles and compromises that tested the bounds of their friendships and collaborations. As the series closes, and we glimpse each of these talented men toiling away at their various craft, we’re struck by how remarkable it is that they even came together in the first place, and what a rich legacy they’ve left us with.
There’s not a lot of wiggle room here; if you’re not a fan of Monty Python, I can’t imagine why you’d contemplate settling in for a six-hour documentary profile of them. But for fans, Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyer’s Cut) is absolutely indispensible; by the time I’d finished watching the documentary and its bonus features, all in one sitting, I would have been perfectly happy to pop disc one back in and start the whole thing over. Sure, much of the material is familiar, and a good chunk of the episodes on Holy Grail and Life of Brian feel like bonus features for those films’ DVDs. But it’s not often that you get to watch as entertaining and stylishly-constructed a documentary as this one; the fact that it’s about one of my favorite subjects sure doesn’t hurt.
"Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyer's Cut)" finished a week-long airing on IFC last week; it arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, October 27th.