Sony // 2010 // 91 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // June 28th, 2010
Behold, the divine comedy concert from the makers of Spamalot!
I regard myself as a big fan of Monty Python. I'm not as obsessive about it as the genuinely hardcore Pythonheads, but I've watched every episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus and every one of their theatrical films multiple times. Their distinct sense of humor rarely fails to make me laugh; the comic anarchy the group displayed all the way up through The Meaning of Life is positively infectious. Even so, in recent years the Python name has been somewhat sullied by one of the group's members: Eric Idle. Idle has been milking the Python brand for all it's worth for quite some time now, and his willingness to admit that he's doing this (he even went on a tour called Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python) doesn't make that fact any less painful. I felt his Broadway show Spamalot was an exceptionally tedious re-telling of the delightful Monty Python and the Holy Grail, so I grimaced a bit when I heard Idle would be doing a comic oratorio based on Monty Python's Life of Brian.
Many people regard Life of Brian as the Python's best theatrical film, as it fused top-shelf humor with some savage social commentary (not to mention that it was actually reasonably well-crafted on a technical level). The film (and the new comic oratorio) tells the story of a young man named Brian who was born around the same time as Christ, mistaken as a savior and erroneously elevated to the position of Messiah by those around him. Much like Spamalot, Not the Messiah: He's a Very Naughty Boy takes the plot and some of the memorable jokes of its cinematic predecessor and deflates them, giving us an overblown, undercooked experience designed to pander to that segment of Python fans who love hearing their favorite bits repeated over and over again.
The trouble is, the comic bits were so much funnier the first time around. One of the best moments in the film is a bit when Brian tells his rabid followers to, "go f -- -- off." A timid disciple politely inquires, "Where shall we f -- -- off to, oh Lord?" The timing of the delivery is so precise, the question delivered in such an amusingly innocent fashion. Idle robs the joke of its punch in Not the Messiah, not only changing the harsh f-word to the more generic "piss" (the film was rated R; Not the Messiah is rated PG) but also by having the participants bellow the joke in a manner that suggests the inevitable laughs it may stir up are being taken for granted. This happens repeatedly with most of the humor (it's telling that the funniest bits are those that aren't borrowed from Life of Brian, like the little Sarah Palin reference early on).
The musical side of things fares a little better but still doesn't quite manage to impress. The tunes (by Idle and his Spamalot collaborator John du Prez) run the gamut from classical to doo-wop to folk to Broadway to gospel, but for the most part they're just kind of...forgettable. Well, there's a fun little piece in which the participants offer operatic simulated sex. You probably won't forget that anytime soon. Still, just as Mel Brooks' musical version of The Producers never managed to generate a tune better than the original "Springtime for Hitler," Not the Messiah is incapable of matching the standard set by the closing tune (both in this production and in Life of Brian), "Always Look at the Bright Side of Life." It remains perhaps the best song Idle ever wrote, though this is due as much to the context in which it was originally used (accompanying a scene of crucifixion in the film) as to its memorable tune and clever lyrics. It loses a little bit of its punch without the film's imagery to back it up, but it's undoubtedly the best number of Not the Messiah. That's too bad.
Idle handles his fair share of the singing, but gives roughly equal time to soloists Rosalind Plowright, Christopher Purves, William Ferguson, and Shannon Mercer. All do a reasonably good job, though Idle is clearly nowhere near as talented as the others in this department. This is entirely forgivable, as Idle's presence is a large part of why people will be watching in the first place.
You're probably curious about the participation of the other Pythons. All the living members (save John Cleese, who did not provide a reason for his absence) are onhand to join in the festivities, though their screen time is rather limited. Michael Palin plays the biggest supporting role, playing "narrator Betty Palin" in drag, doing his lispy Pontius Pilate again, and (most delightfully) providing us with a rousing rendition of "The Lumberjack Song" as a coda to the proceedings. Terry Jones also turns up to sing a brief number, while Terry Gilliam politely pops in to deliver a two-word line. I find their participation sort of curious, as Gilliam and particularly Jones haven't had particularly nice things to say about Idle's recent Python-related outings. Still, I guess it's nice to see some of the guys together again, even if it is in such an unimpressive event.
The transfer is solid if not exactly a knockout. The level of detail is pretty solid, particularly when we're dealing with close-ups and facial detail. The brighter the scene, the better the transfer fares, which is mostly a good thing given that this is largely a bright and colorful production. However, the darker scenes/portions of the screen do seem to suffer from a slightly excessive amount of noise. Flesh tones are warm and natural. What really matters on a release like this is the audio, which fortunately gets the job done quite nicely. In his review of the DVD version, Judge Jim Thomas noted that the audio was quite disappointing. As far as I know that may very well be the case on that version, but I have no real complaints with the Blu-ray audio. The sound is immersive and detailed, allowing you to experience the ambiance of the Royal Albert Hall without losing the precise detail of the music or lyrics. There's an excellent level of balance in the audio, as the dialogue scenes and more powerful blasts of music are evened out enough that you won't have to be adjusting your remote.
There's a handful of supplements offered on the disc. "The Road to Albert Hall" (31 minutes) provides with a nice look at this story's journey from screen to stage. It's certainly the most substantial supplement of the set and well worth checking out. "Showtime!" (3 minutes) offers some additional behind-the-scenes footage, while "The Bright Side" (3 minutes) is a quick piece on the popular tune that closes the show. Finally, there are some sing-along tracks for six songs.
Spamalot fans and those who find Idle's post-Python outings enjoyable will probably dig Not the Messiah, but I suspect there are plenty of Python fans who will regard this contrivance with a blend of sadness and cynicism. Those who aren't familiar at all will be entirely alienated by what will surely seem an oddball experience.
Guilty of unsuccessfully exploiting the popularity of the world's greatest
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated PG