All You Need is Cash

The Rutles 1Synopsis: Follow four-mop topped young Brits whose right choice of trousers (tight) gets them a lifetime recording contract despite their lack of musical ability. Overcoming that, they produce monumental albums like Sgt. Rutter’s Only Darts Club Band, which, along with appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and a concert at Che Stadium, cement their world domination of pop music. But, as with their Fab Four namesake, artistic differences and various other problems threaten to derail Rutlemania.

This Beatles parody, the brainchild of Monty Python’s Eric Idle, originally aired as a skit on Saturday Night Live. Audience response was so overwhelming that SNL producer Lorne Michaels decided to go ahead with a full production, enlisting SNL players John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, and Dan Aykroyd, to name a few.

Includes The Rutles’ wonderfully warped songs Ouch!, Piggy In The Middle, Cheese And Onions, Get Up And Go and many other twisted yet familiar-sounding tunes.

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All You Need is Cash  7.5

eyelights: Eric Idle. the accurate rehash of The Beatles’ history. the light satire.
eyesores: the limited spoofing of The Beatles’ history. its subtlety.

“Listen, looking at it very simply musicology and ethnically, The Rutles were essentially imperical malengistes of a rhythmically radical yet verbally passé and temporally transcended lyrically content welded with historically innovative melodical material transposed and transmogrified by the angst of the Rutland ethic experience which elevated them from essentially alpha exponents of in essence merely beta potential harmonic material into the prime cultural exponents of Aeolian cadencic comic stanza form”

There are a couple of rather different origin stories for The Rutles….

One of them is that their future manager, Leggy Mountbatten, saw them at The Cavern and was rather impressed with their trousers – they were very tight, you see. Then he took them under his wing and shopped them around until he finally got a record deal for them. Soon their trousers would make history. As would their music.

Another has it that Eric Idle and Neil Innes spoofed The Beatles in 1975 on Idle’s show, ‘Rutland Weekend Television’, catching the eye of ‘Saturday Night Live’s Lorne Michael. Armed with Innes’ uncanny ability to collage and emulate The Beatles’ sound and Idle’s knack for comic writing, in 1978 they put together a mock documentary.

That mockumentary, a television special, was ‘All You Need is Cash’ – the commentary for which you are reading now.

Whichever story you would sooner believe, the fact remains that ‘All You Need is Cash’ was very influential: some credit Rob Reiner’s ‘This is Spinal Tap‘ as a direct descendant of this telefilm. But it’s also true that, at the time, the project was a massive flop – it was the worst rated programme in American television that whole week!

What apparently made the biggest difference to their fortunes was Innes’ remarkably familiar tunes, which, compiled on an accompanying soundtrack album, ended up garnering a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Recording that year. Innes’ work so assumed The Beatles’ sound that Fab Four bootlegs sometimes mistakenly included Rutles tracks.

He was also sued at the time by the owners of The Beatles’ catalogue for copyright infringement. No joke. (An interesting fact: Innes had actually worked with The Beatles in the past: His group at the time, Bonzo Dog Band, were invited by Paul McCartney to make a small cameo in ‘Magical Mystery Tour’, playing one of their own songs)

For some people, this facsimile Beatles music is the chief reason for watching ‘All You Need I Cash’. Personally, I think that the songs are more musically clever than lyrically interesting, and can feel rather redundant: we do, after all, have the classics already – do we really need echoes of them? And if one does, why not simply listen to The Monkees?

For me, the main attraction of this film is how it so closely mirrors The Beatles’ actual history, creating for all intents and purposes an alternate reality in which some key aspects of their history have been mildly altered. Mildly – to the degree that watching ‘All You Need is Cash’ is very reminiscent of ‘The Compleat Beatles’ documentary.

In fact, Eric Idle did a lot of research in making this project, and it shows – although it’s not always consistent, the film even does a decent job of meshing the faked footage with historical footage (including the Ed Sullivan appearances). The problem is that he goes so deep into the portrayal of this alternate Fab Four that he frequently forgets to spoof them.

The only real way to enjoy ‘All You Need is Cash’ is to be a die-hard fan of The Beatles, so that one is so familiar with the original footage and history that one can discern the film’s various nuances. And even then, the humour is mostly of the extremely dry variety (as only the British could have managed it), so it might still be over one’s head.

From my perspective, the best bits are the ones featuring Eric Idle as the narrator. After we meet him, chasing the camera to remain on screen, it only gets nuttier and nuttier: first jumping from one city to the next for no good reason, and also being in the wrong ones. He’s clueless, but hilarious, and by far the funniest part of the show.

Other elements didn’t work at all. For example, the spoof version of  Brian Epstein, Leggy Mountbatten, wasn’t very funny – he came off as a rough, silent version of Grandpa in ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. At best, the funniest bits were the allusions to the Boy Scouts. And even then. Overall, the material was alright, but the character was ridiculously redundant.

I also didn’t really understand the point of calling The Rutles the “Pre-Fab Four”. Um… if there weren’t a “Fab Four”, then how there be a “Pre-Fab Four”, exactly? And what would it mean, when uprooted from its real-life context? In a non-Beatles world, what would be the point of branding them with this moniker?

Further to this, I didn’t get the alternate names that they were given:

Dirk McQuickly = Paul McCartney
Ron Nasty = John Lennon
Stig O’Hara = George Harrison
Barry Wom/Barrington Womble = Ringo Starr/Richard Starkey

I can’t even fathom in which way they were spoofing the original Beatles, which is a huge error – if we have to dig too deep to find the humour, it’s no longer funny. Having said this, maybe it’s not really meant to be funny, and these were just the names Idle and Innes picked. But it would be a wasted opportunity, if such is the case.

‘All You Need is Cash’ covers The Rutles from approximately 1963 to their break-up in 1970. After a brief highlights reel at the beginning, the film takes us through their history in a linear form, spending much of its time on the beginning of their success and on the group’s final moments; the rest merely gets a cursory glance or two, no more.

Interestingly, towards the end, they started spreading story elements across a few different Rutles instead of keeping them focused on the original. For example, they crossed over the rumour that Paul was dead to Stig instead of making it part of Dirk’s story. Ultimately, I’m not sure why these changes were made, but it wasn’t too jarring.

One significant change was that The Rutles’ Yoko Ono, Chastity, is a German-born Nazi obsessed with war. I loved that because it would have been too easy to poke fun at Yoko directly (case-in-point, she was already frequently mocked in the press and by the public), so I think that Idle did the right thing by going the opposite route altogether here.

I also rather enjoyed the cameos: George Harrison and Michael Palin were a highlight in one segment, John Belushi has a terrific presence (although his skit isn’t very funny), Mick Jagger comes off natural, playing himself (Paul Simon was more credible, though). I also enjoyed the concept behind the Dan Aykroyd skit, as the man who turned away The Rutles down:

Narrator: “And you turned down The Rutles.”
Brian Thigh: “Yeah, yeah.”
Narrator: “What’s it like being an asshole?”

Unfortunately, he was horrendous in it – as were many others, including (but not limited to) Bill Murray, Gilda Radner and Bianca Jagger. Honestly, as enjoyable as it was to see so many of that era’s Saturday Night Live cast in the film, I was blown away by the quality of their performances, as a whole. Based on this alone, one couldn’t help but wonder how they made it.

Another disappointment was the audio track: Remixed in 5.1 Dolby Digital, the sound was spread over too thin, leaving a terrible hiss to fill the speakers. As I watched this, I pretty much dreamt of a lossless remastered mono or stereo track instead of this “immersive” 5.1 mix. Unfortunately, the original, unremixed, track was not the disc.

Still, all in all, ‘All You Need is Cash’ is terrific fun for Beatlemaniacs or anyone extremely familiar with their history – it’s so nuanced that these people would get a real kick out of it. As for everyone else… well, they might end up more quizzical than enlightened or entertained by gently twisted mishmash of Beatles facts and fiction.

To them, I would recommend that they merely ignore it, and ‘Let it Rot’.

Narrator: “Do you think they’ll ever get back together again?”
Mick Jagger: “I hope not.”

Post scriptum: The Rutles would, in fact, return. After the success of The Beatles’ ‘Anthology’ documentary and compilations, they released a compilation called ‘Archaeology’, and a second TV documentary (called ‘ Can’t Buy Me Lunch’) was produced. We’ll be discussing the latter soon enough…

Date of viewing: November 20, 2013

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