DVD Review: Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Five to Go

STUDIO: Eagle Rock | DIRECTOR: Aubrey Powell | CAST: John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gillliam, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Carol Cleveland, Graham Chapman
RELEASE DATE: 11/11/14 | PRICE: DVD $19.99, Blu-ray $24.99
BONUSES: behind-the-scenes segments
SPECS: PG-13 | 136 min. | Comedy | 16×9 widescreen | Dolby Digital 5.1/ DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 | English with English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

It was certainly the biggest (non-death-related) “comedy news” of the year. The five remaining members of the Monty Python troupe agreed to perform live for the first time since 1980 for 10 shows at the O2 Arena in London. The resulting show, Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Five to Go (a reference to deceased Python Graham Chapman), can be seen here, and it is no doubt critic-proof: those who want the disc will buy it regardless of reviews, and those who don’t want it have already made up their mind about the unique Python style of humor.

Whether one loves or hates them, the Pythons were indeed “the Beatles of comedy,” cultivating a massive, devoted following in the U.S. that knows their sketches by heart and will acquire anything issued under the Python brand — thus the countless DVD and VHS compilations reshuffling segments from the 45 original BBC episodes. The summer 2014 concerts were proclaimed to be a “farewell” stint for the group, who are now all over 70 years old.

Monty Python Live (Mostly) scene

Michael Palin (l.) and Eric Idle drag it out in Monty Python Live (Mostly).

The stage show was directed by Eric Idle, and it definitely bears his none-too-light touch — big musical numbers bridge the gaps between sketches, to the extent that the show’s finale features not one but two Idle songs, including the barely-remembered “Christmas in Heaven” (from 1983’s The Meaning of Life). The other device used to bridge the gaps is an obvious one, Terry Gilliam’s animation for the original Python TV series.

The sketches contained in the show are a mixture of the team’s “greatest hits” and a few more obscure items that hail from the series.  Thus, in addition to the dead parrot sketch, the argument clinic, the Spanish Inquisition, the lumberjack song and “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” there are things like the penguin on the TV, John Cleese as an armless military man, Idle as an anagram expert and learning about the llama.

The most interesting thing about the performance is the fact that the two Pythons who seem to be having the best time are the two who noted in interviews that they wished there was no reunion, namely Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam. The latter was the least-active performer in the group (his major contribution being his stunningly imaginative collage animation). Here he’s smiling broadly and hamming it up incredibly.

Palin hasn’t done that much comedic performing in the last decade (his attention has gone to his critically lauded travel programs). Here he is terrific in both the best-known sketches and a few of the lesser-known fan favorites, including the nasty (and particularly timely) “Blackmail” game show. Like Gilliam, he appears to having a ball throughout.

Monty Python Live (Mostly) scene

The final bow in Monty Python Live (Mostly)

Their compatriots, on the other hand, are there to do a job. Idle does his best-remembered sketch (“nudge, nudge, say no more…”) and also dominates in the musical realm. Cleese and Terry Jones are amusing and necessary components of the show, but they move through their characters with little glee (at various points Cleese forgets his lines) and a base-level amount of commitment.

Carol Cleveland, the Python’s leading lady, plays many of the key female roles. The late Chapman also appears several times in footage and is referred to at one point in new dialogue as “Dr. Chapman” (he had a medical degree in addition to being a legendary comedy writer-performer).

The new material amounts to a few stray lines, a scant few linking devices, one musical number (featuring no Pythons) and a very short gag film featuring Professor Brian Cox and Stephen Hawking (the other guests on hand are Mike Myers and Eddie Izzard, who take part in old sketches).

The 20-plus minutes of extras produced by Holly Gilliam (Terry’s daughter) show small fragments of the initial press conference that announced the live shows, rehearsals, backstage preparation, visits to the shows by a host of famous British comedians (Steve Coogan and Simon Pegg being the names best known to Americans).

Best of all are two greenscreen sequences in which four of the group (Idle excluded) ad-lib lines as their “pepperpot” and Gumby characters for videos played in the O2 during intermission. These all-too-short improvised moments give a hint of what the show might’ve been like if they had opted to write new material.

In the meantime, we can enjoy them reviving their old work here, knowing that (like the Beatles), their reunion (minus one member) is bittersweet but still gives comedy fans a reason to celebrate, and laugh.

 

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”