Great Films You Need To See – The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised website that shows film in a wider context. The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews with the theme of ‘satire’. This piece is part of the site’s Lost Classics section (featuring in my list of Great Films You Need To See), in this case ex-Python Eric Idle’s music mockumentary The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash.

Hardly ones to take themselves too seriously, the Fab Four nevertheless provided the perfect foils for the grandfather of music mockumentaries.

While Spinal Tap took the formula to unparalleled heights, The Rutles set the ball rolling and remains an amusingly ramshackle spoof

While Spinal Tap took the formula to unparalleled heights, The Rutles set the ball rolling and remains an amusingly ramshackle spoof

Before This Is Spinal Tap (1984) there was The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978), a Beatles parody given form partly thanks to its lead guitarist George Harrison.

Originally conceived as a throwaway sketch on Eric Idle’s post-Python BBC comedy series Rutland Weekend Television (1975-76), the skit took on a life of its own when it was shown on an episode of the long-running gag show Saturday Night Live that Idle was hosting.

Eric Idle's presenter in deep water in The Rutles

Eric Idle’s presenter in deep water in The Rutles

With Harrison’s encouragement, Idle’s partner-in-crime on Rutland Weekend Television Neil Innes knuckled down to turn what was an affectionate parody of A Hard Day’s Night into an alternative history of the world’s most successful and beloved band that spawned a whole new cinematic sub-genre.

Written by Idle and Innes, The Rutles charts the story of the Prefab Four – Dirk McQuickly (Idle), Ron Nasty (Innes), Stig O’Hara (Ricky Fataar) and Barry Wom (John Halsey) – from their humble Rutland roots to becoming “bigger than Rod [Stewart]” and creating “a musical legend that will last a lunchtime”.

The Rutles' take on I Am The Walrus, Piggy In The Middle

The Rutles’ take on I Am The Walrus, Piggy In The Middle

Modelled on the traditional to-camera documentary presenter style (Idle again), the film’s less-than-serious approach is apparent from the get go, with the former Python’s walk and talk becoming a sprint and gasp as the vehicle he’s following decides to hit the gas.

The presenter follows in the tight-trousered band’s footsteps from Der Rat Keller in Hamburg to the Ed Sullivan Show, Che Stadium (“named after the Cuban guerilla leader Che Stadium”), their spiritual quest to Bognor to meet Surrey mystic Arthur Sultan and Ron’s sit in the shower for peace with his soul mate Chastity (played by Gwen Taylor in a Nazi outfit in a hilariously near-the-knuckle mickey take of Yoko Ono).

Ron Nasty (Neil Innes) and partner Chastity (Gwen Taylor), aka Yoko Ono in The Rutles

Ron Nasty (Neil Innes) and partner Chastity (Gwen Taylor), aka Yoko Ono in The Rutles

The Beatles’ musical evolution is playfully parodied (Doubleback Alley is a take on Penny Lane; I Am The Walrus becomes the equally nonsensical Piggy In The Middle, among many others), while the band’s foray into the world of movies is also lampooned, with Ouch! a send-up of Help!; Yellow Submarine Sandwich (complete with surreal animation) and The Tragical History Tour, in which the Prefab Four play Oxford history professors going on a hitchhiking tour of tea shops in the Rutland area.

The SNL connection led to cameos from Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner and John Belushi, while Michael Palin appears in one the film’s most amusing scenes playing opposite Harrison’s silver-haired interviewer as Rutle Corps’ headquarters is plundered.

Ex-Beatle George Harrison interviews Rutle Corp press agent Eric Manchester (Michael Palin) in The Rutles

Ex-Beatle George Harrison interviews Rutle Corp press agent Eric Manchester (Michael Palin) in The Rutles

Roped in to give the film some extra fizz by Harrison, a game Mick Jagger and Paul Simon deliver old Rutles tales with admirable brio, probably because most of the stories they were telling were actually true and involved the Fab, rather than the Prefab, Four.

The Rutles adheres to the most important rule of mockumentaries, in that everyone plays it straight despite the silliness going on around them. It also helps that Innes’ songs are catchy in their own right and different enough from the originals so as not to sound like a carbon copy.

The Rutles go all showbiz

The Rutles go all showbiz

It’s a testament to the film’s legacy that not only did it influence Rob Reiner and Christopher Guest when approaching This Is Spinal Tap, but also remains both a cult favourite among as many Beatles fans as those who still follow The Rutles on their sporadic live tours.

While Spinal Tap took the formula to unparalleled heights, The Rutles set the ball rolling and remains an amusingly ramshackle spoof.

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In Retrospect – The Player (1992)

Robert Altman may have playfully described his ‘Hollywood on Hollywood’ black comedy as “a very mild satire”, but he was fooling no-one.

One of Robert Altman's very best, The Player could arguably be the ultimate example of Hollywood eating itself

One of Robert Altman’s very best, The Player could arguably be the ultimate example of Hollywood eating itself

One of the most cynical, caustic and clever dissections of a creatively bankrupt studio system that has only become worse in the 21 years since its release, Altman’s The Player is one of the late director’s most celebrated works and, ironically, brought him back in from the cold after a decade spent making no budget chamber pieces.

Actors are a contrary lot. Happy to take the cheque and star in the sort of drivel the director mercilessly satirises, dozens of actors (whose star wattage could power a small town) lined-up to take walk-on parts mostly as themselves in order to take a gleeful swipe at the piñata that is Tinseltown’s lumbering studio system.

The sleek, shark-like studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) in The Player

The sleek, shark-like studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) in The Player

Based on Michael Tolkin’s book, Altman’s anti-hero is sleek, shark-like studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), who’s scared he could be axed in favour of the younger, up-and-coming story executive Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher). Mill’s life is thrown into further disarray when he continues to receive increasingly threatening postcards from a writer he can’t remember whose pitch he ignored.

Everything in The Player is artifice from the very first shot of someone asking for “quiet on set” and a clapperboard shutting. A person’s word counts for nothing, false sincerity and hypocrisy is in plentiful supply and artistic backbone turns to spinelessness when money and power enter the equation. At one point, Mill bumps into Burt Reynolds, who’s all smiles until Mill walks away, at which point he calls him an “asshole”.

Studio exec Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) sets his sights on artist June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi) in The Player

Studio exec Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) sets his sights on artist June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi) in The Player

This most tellingly plays out in the second half of the film when pretentious English writer Tom Oakley (Richard E Grant) and producer Andy Civella (Dean Stockwell) pitch the death row thriller Habeas Corpus to Mill at a restaurant. Oakley vociferously insists it mustn’t lose its downbeat conclusion (“no Hollywood endings”) and feature no stars. Inevitably, as the studio’s claws get into the project Habeas Corpus turns into a very different movie, to the extent that has Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts as its leads and includes a tacked-on happy ‘Hollywood ending’, both of which Oakley seems happy about now it’s been made (in an example of life imitating art, one of the stars of Habeas Corpus is Susan Sarandon, who three years later teamed up with her long-time partner Robbins to make Dead Man Walking, a death row thriller).

Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) receives yet another death-threatening postcard from a mystery writer in The Player

Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) receives yet another death-threatening postcard from a mystery writer in The Player

Oakley isn’t the only writer who fails to come out of The Player smelling of roses. One pitches The Graduate: Part 2 (I’m personally amazed that one hasn’t been made) in which all the original characters incredulously still live together “in a big, old spooky house”. Another pitches “Out Of Africa meets Pretty Woman“, while a further writer’s idea for a hard-hitting politically radical film with a supernatural edge (“Ghost meets The Manchurian Candidate“) is reduced to a bland paint-by-numbers thriller after only 30 seconds in Mill’s hands.

One thing that strikes you about watching the film is just how disinterested Mill and his cronies are in watching movies (something you suspect is true for a lot of today’s execs). At an informal lunch, Mill asks those around him: “Can we talk about something other than Hollywood for a change?” The silence that follows speaks volumes.

At one point Mill gives a speech at a gala dinner in which he bangs on about the importance of finding the next John Huston or Orson Welles and the fact that “movies are art”. He unsurprisingly contradicts himself later in the film when he lists the key ingredients that make a successful Hollywood film, the most important one being “happy endings”.

Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) says hi to the agent and Burt Reynolds, just one of dozens of cameos in The Player

Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) says hi to the agent and Burt Reynolds, just one of dozens of cameos in The Player

The only time we see Mill actually watch a film is when he thinks he’s tracked down the mystery writer sending him death threats to an old movie theatre showing Vittorio De Seca’s 1948 neo-realist classic Bicycle Thieves and even then it’s only for the last five minutes. Perhaps underlining how there are no original ideas left in Tinseltown, Altman constantly makes references to Hollywood’s golden age, whether it be the posters of old classics in the studio’s offices or the threatening postcards featuring Humphrey Bogart and James Dean.

The late Robert Altman, director of The Player

The late Robert Altman, director of The Player

Head of studio security Walter Stuckel (Fred Ward) complains that all films today are “cut, cut, cut” and refers to the six-and-a-half-minute opening shot of Touch Of Evil. It’s a clever, self-referential nod to the audience as he opens the film with a celebrated tracking shot lasting almost eight minutes. It’s bravura filmmaking and shows off Altman’s unique and complex Peeping Tom style of filming certain moments using a long lens that often incorporate overlapping conversations and multiple set-ups.

The film has a wicked sense of humour (in a cute piece of marketing, a poster for it includes the quote “the best movie ever made!” … attributed to Griffin Mill) that veers from pitch black satire to farce. Altman was always a pranksterish filmmaker and this knowing humour runs through the core of The Player.

Alas, The Player feels all-too-pertinent to a modern-day big studio system scrambling about in the dark for the next big thing. One of Altman’s very best, this could arguably be the ultimate example of Hollywood eating itself.