Monty Python: The Meaning of Live

Monty Python - The Meaning of LiveSynopsis: The 90-minute documentary, directed by BAFTA award winning Roger Graef OBE, follows the stars of Monty Python as they reform and stage a marathon ten shows at The O2, London. With unprecedented access, this observational portrait reveals the humour, chaos and passion that went into bringing the ‘Monty Python Live (mostly) – One Down Five to Go’ shows to the stage. It offers a unique insight into the inner workings of five diverse talents pulling together after a 34-year hiatus to recreate their unique brand of comedy for a legion of fans and celebrity admirers. As well as following their journey to The O2, newly found archive reveals how they pioneered stadium comedy, with rarely before seen footage from Monty Python’s early live shows, including their 1973 ‘1st Farewell Tour’ and the 1980 ‘Live at the Hollywood Bowl’. It is the Pythons as never seen before, and will never be seen again.

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Monty Python: The Meaning of Live 8.0

eyelights: Idle and Palin’s censorship skit. Hawking’s laughter. Jagger’s cameo. the corpsing bits.
eyesores: seeing the effect of age on some of the Pythons.

‘Monty Python: The Meaning of Live’ is a 90-minute documentary film that was produced for the UK TV channel Gold and which was broadcast on November 13, 2014. It concerns itself with Monty Python’s live act, starting with their ‘First Farewell Tour’ in 1973 all the way to The O2 series of shows in 2014, taking us behind the scenes with the Pythons before and after the landmark concerts.

Directed by Roger Graef, who also helmed the Python members’ various ’70s and ’80s charity concert films, the documentary revisits the tours linearly from start to finish, all the while going back through time to show how Python evolved as a live act and interspersing new interviews. Interestingly, although filmed separately, it could be a companion piece to ‘And Now for Something Rather Similar‘.

Taking up where the latter left off, it finds the Pythons readying to go on stage for one of their O2 shows. Then it proceeds to do a requisite but mercifully brief overview of the group before taking us to their first script reading in 2013, followed by their press conference. In no time flat we’re at their dress rehearsal, which was hampered by a number of technical issues, even just a few nights prior.

Idle felt a lot of pressure, naturally, given that he spearheaded the project from the get-go; he felt that if it failed it would be his fault. And, obviously, he wanted their last hurrah to be a success, not an embarrassment. Echoing that feeling, Gilliam said that it was a group decision but that he didn’t want to do it, worrying about possibly failing. Meanwhile, Palin was the sharpest, most vital, of the lot.

I was heartened to hear Cleese’s comments echo my own thoughts, noting that The O2 shows are completely different from ‘Flying Circus’, that there weren’t any song and dance numbers in the first three series. Idle called the ‘Live (mostly): One Down, Five to Go’ (which Cleese named) a review, which is exactly what it is. It’s anything but a traditional Monty Python live show, which could be a shock to some.

For me, what was really shocking was to find the Pythons facing age-related health issues. Given the candid nature of the piece, we find Jones talking about his memory loss (which explains the cue cards during “Crunchy Frog”); he apparently struggled during rehearsals, worrying the others. We also see Palin reunited with Carol Cleveland backstage, only to find that she has slight shakes à la Katharine Hepburn.

Le sigh…

Still, I loved that the documentary didn’t gloss these details over. The filmmakers seemed to have full access to the Pythons, which led us into fun clips of their appearance on The Graham Norton Show on December 30, 2013, and to some amusing banter during a couple of Q&As with Premium Seat holders. It also leads to more sober reflections, reminiscing about Graham and the role he would have played.

They also showed Idle and Palin doing a short last-minute video to censor “The Penis Song” number  for the TV broadcast, which had Palin in drag explaining to audiences what they were missing – but using words that needed bleeping out. It’s quite funny, actually. Idle explained that making people laugh was scientific, algebraic; that it can be calculated. Too bad so few can figure out the formula.

…even the Pythons, sometimes.

Some of the funniest moments came from some terrific outtakes from The O2 shows. One them takes place during the “Dead Parrot Sketch” when Cleese corpses, forcing Palin to improvise. And then there’s Jones, Cleese and Gilliam all corpsing during the “Crunchy Frog” sketch. These kind of ruined the skits, but we can see those anywhere else, whereas these impromptu moments are pure gold.

Speaking of gold, the documentary also takes us behind the scenes of the making of Stephen Hawking’s cameo before and during “Galaxy Song”: when Idle plays him his cameo in the song, it was amazing to see a big smile creep up on his face. There was also a bit with Mick Jagger watching the press conference and poking fun at the value of watching old men redoing their old material. Priceless.

Naturally, the programme ended with bits from the final show, stocked with far too much Mike Myers (an incredibly over-rated comedian, in my estimation), giving us not just a taste of what it was like, not just closing the set, but bringing to a close the story of one of history’s greatest comedy troupes. ‘The Meaning of Live’ provides closure in a way that ‘Live (mostly)’ fails to do and nothing else could.

In the wise words of Palin, quoting Spike Milligan about his own career, “It was like one good summer”.

Make that a great summer.

Post scriptum: Of note, the documentary was broadcast with a cut right down the middle separating the film into two 45-minute segments. It was then followed by a brief 45-minute truncated version of their final stage performance, which was released on home video that week. The advantage of this version is that it focuses on the Pythons’ sketches, cutting out all the redundant musical numbers.

While not great, I actually preferred it to having to sit through over an hour and half of musical numbers just to see them perform. God I hate musical numbers. If this documentary is ever released on home video, it is dearly hoped that this edited version of ‘Live (mostly)’ will find its way on the disc as a supplement.

Date of viewing: July 2, 2015

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