The Rutles (1978) — A not-so-subtle spoof of a certain popular band

“Do you remember the Rutles?”

Rich’s rating: Rob Reiner’s got some explaining to do.

Rich’s review: In 1984, Director Rob Reiner released a film which is heralded today as a cult classic. Ahead of its time, inventive and certainly hilarious, This Is Spinal Tap took a slanted look at the ‘rockumentary’ genre of film-making, and made a brilliant and cutting satire on rock and roll which is loved by millions.

This review is NOT the story of that film.

Between 1960 and 1970, arguably the most popular band in the history of music dominated the globe. With a career spanning over 15 long-playing records, Liverpool’s The Beatles are still regarded today as seminal music-makers, whose extensive and inspirational back catalogue is cited by modern musicians over every field as an inspiration for their work.

This review isn’t really their story either. Sorry.

The real story of this review takes place in 1978. Using what we can only assume were the powers of his own comedy genius, Eric Idle (of Monty Python fame) somehow looked six years into the future, saw the success of This Is Spinal Tap, then shamelessly ripped off the format and bought it back in time for use in his own film. Scandalous behaviour, but then again, if Hollywood has taught us anything, its that anyone with a British accent has to be evil — no doubt Eric was just giving in the demands of his heritage.

Taking the Spinal Tap mock-rock-umentary formula, Eric grafted it in his secret lab onto the history of the aforementioned Beatles, and a creature the likes of which the world had never seen was born. Enter the Rutles.

Unlike Spinal Tap, The Rutles is shot in retrospective, mirroring the story of the Beatles practically step-for-step, but seen through the darkly warped Pythian mind of Eric Idle. Mock archive footage of the Pre-Fab Four, Dirk, Barry, Stig and Nasty, is intercut with modern interviews with people who knew the Rutles in their heyday. Every major event in the history of their real-life counterparts is echoed with a comic twist in The Rutles — their marriages, their albums, the psychedelic movement, and their eventual financial collapse and inevitable break-up are all recorded with mock seriousness, the deadpan narration (of Idle, who plays a variety of parts throughout the film) belying the surreal humour which dominates the film.

The actors playing the Rutles themselves (with the exception of Eric Idle as Dirk McQuickly) were actually musicians, and the various musical numbers throughout the film are actually played and recorded by The Rutles themselves, with the voice of Ollie Halsall (who plays Leppo, the fifth Rutle fired from the band before they were famous) used instead of Eric Idle’s singing voice, which even he describes as terrible. The musical numbers themselves aren’t just blatant rip-offs of Beatles tunes with comedy lyrics either; instead, each is a song in it’s own right — all with nods to the songs they are parodying, but nothing so crude as a simple cut-and-past- the-word-‘Love’-with-the-word-‘Bum’ style song parodies you might expect.

This film even has some major star cameo pulling power; not only does Idle get Mick Jagger and Paul Simon to talk about how they knew the Rutles in mock interviews (Jagger in particular seems to have great fun making up stories about his interaction with the Pre-Fab Four, and their manager, Leggy Mountbatten), but the sudden appearance of people like Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, John Belushi, and fellow Python Michael Palin playing bit parts ramps the comedy count up a few more notches (but never past 11). The film even actually has one of the original Beatles themselves in, in the form of the sadly departed George Harrison, who seems to have a great time as the ‘documentaries’ interviewer.

Given all that, why did this film not attain the lofty heights that Spinal Tap reached? The answer lies in the subject material, or more accurately, knowledge of the original Beatles saga in order to understand the parodies and jokes about it. People who know their Beatles trivia, the history of their rise to fame, their music, their films and their feuds, will find all of the above skewed to perfection, providing enough laughs to make your jaws hurt by the time you reach the credits. But woe unto you should you watch this film without your pre-requisite Beatles official trivia-master button affixed to your brain; you might still laugh, in fact I’m sure you will, because the comedy is still immediate — but the references that would have a Beatles aficionado chortling in his chair will inevitably pass straight over your head, and leave you wondering what you’ve just missed.

Didja notice?

  • The ‘flawless’ edit on the stock footage of the Rutles’ introduction to America on the Ed Sullivan Show.
  • The brilliant recreation of the sleeve art for of the original Beatles albums, especially for ‘Shabby Road’ and ‘Sgt. Rutter’s Only Darts Club Band’\
  • The consequences of emigrating to Australia, and the amazing effects of every Briton’s favourite cuppa.
  • As Stig O’Hara, “the quiet Rutle,” Rikki Fataar does not have one spoken line in the entire film.
  • According to the DVD director commentary track, the glider that flies past the policemen on the wall during the “Magical Mystery Tour” Parody was not anticipated

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s