Out on DVD as of last week is Not the Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy), the latest large-scale Monty Python project. Python aficionados will recognize from the title that it’s an adaptation of the 1979 feature film Life of Brian, but they may be startled by the form: a classical-style oratorio.
Eric Idle, perhaps the most unabashed & old-school showman among the Pythons, is the guiding force here. He wrote the lyrics, & his longtime collaborator John Du Prez—the two of them created Spamalot—set them to rather grand music, employing a full orchestra, a large chorus & soloists. The result, basically, is to Life of Brian what Handel’s Messiah is to the Life of Christ.
Though the piece premiered in Toronto in 2007 & was mounted in other venues around the world—including the Sydney Opera House!—the DVD documents its performance on October 23rd of last year, at the Royal Albert Hall, if you please, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Monty Python. Du Prez conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, & Idle is one of the soloists, singing the “Baritonish” part, while the other four soloists are first-rate operatic & classical vocalists.
The Royal Albert performance also includes appearances by all the surviving Pythons except for John Cleese: Michael Palin provides the narration (in drag) & reprises his role as the speech-impaired Pilate; Terry Jones sings a number, quite prettily, as a Welsh miner; & Terry Gilliam has a bit that’s too good to give away. Also turning up are such “Associate Pythons” as Carol Cleveland & Neil Innes.
The musical styles vary, from doo-wop to gospel to a full-on unintelligible send-up of Dylan by Idle (subtitles are recommended for the whole show, but especially this number). The finale, it need hardly be said, is a rousing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” & for an encore Palin belts out “The Lumberjack Song,” with Cleveland at his side & Jones, Gilliam & Innes among the Mounties backing him up.
The DVD has some entertaining extras, notably sing-a-long versions of several of the songs, including “Bright Side.” It’s all great fun, & the participation of the other Pythons, along with the wild enthusiasm of the audience, gives it the loose, warm feel of a reunion party.
But it also seemed, to my ear, genuinely musically accomplished. As with Spamalot—I saw the Vegas production with a pal a few years ago—there are times when the music pushes just a little past parody, & becomes truly stirring.