On DVD: Not the Messiah

There's growing old with grace and dignity, and then there's Not the Messiah. Whereas four of the five surviving Pythons have found second careers separate from their membership in one of the most influential comedy troupes of all time, Eric Idle has persistently, and independently, recycled the group's old material into new and less-engaging forms. Some of Idle's ventures, such as the musical Spamalot, have been hugely successful. Others, such as his exploitative concert tours, in which he performs Python material solo, have been purely indulgent. Not the Messiah, an oratorio based on Monty Python's Life of Brian, arrives on the lower end of this spectrum, smelling as it does like a warmed-over slab of opportunism (in this case, Python's fortieth anniversary), even while it bears at least salutary traces of invention.

There are times when it is wise to rest on one's laurels. Since 1983, the Pythons have done so in a generally elegant way, briefly revisiting their glory days when anniversaries and such roll around. The tributes and special events are mostly modest, however, and limited in scope. I don't believe there have been any official Python performances, per se, since Monty Python's The Meaning of Life was released. The book The Pythons, a group autobiography published in 2004, may have been the only official troupe "product" since that feature. (Aficionados more thorough than I should feel free to correct me on this point.)

That hasn't stopped the flow of feature films and Flying Circus on DVD, reissues of the Python record catalog on CD, and other ancillary products such as Idle's cannibalized projects. Not the Messiah is the latest of all of these, and it's not the worst. Still, it's far from the best. What keeps Not the Messiah from being a noteworthy entry in the quasi-Python canon is its unavoidable staleness; its chief effect will be to drive its viewers to watch Life of Brian again - a veritable work of genius beside which this derivative "oratorio" pales.

Co-composed with frequent Python collaborator John Du Prez, Not the Messiah is staged with a full orchestra and chorus, and fronted by four soloists. Songs range from those based directly on material in Life of Brian (such as "Mandy's Song" and "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life"), as well as others like "O God You Are So Big," which comes from a scene in The Meaning of Life, and the bizarre one-off "Individuals," in which Idle, performing solo, does a decent if perplexing Bob Dylan impersonation. The feel of the oratorio therefore feels ad hoc - a big jumble of jokes that Idle has compiled more out of his own need to rehash, than out of any sense of artistic or comedic integrity. (It's worth pointing out that Spamalot, despite its success, relies on the same rather thoughtless approach. It includes material from Flying Circus, plus its own version of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.")

Musically, the oratorio is a moderate success. Du Prez' orchestral arrangements are appropriately bombastic and occasionally inspired. However, this is overshadowed by the silly one-note joke of the libretto, which is based on the assumption that it's hilarious to have classically-trained singers perform frivolous, comic, and off-color material. In fact, Not the Messiah almost uniformly fails to evoke laughter, with perhaps the solitary exception of a very brief, well-timed appearance by Terry Gilliam. The closing crowd-pleaser is a jaw-dropping non sequitur, with Michael Palin appearing with a chorus of Mounties for a performance of "The Lumberjack Song." Never has great comedy ever appeared so pathetic; Palin's more recent career as a wonderful travel writer and documentary presenter has been unwisely jettisoned for this stunningly inappropriate insertion of a greatest hit. It's as if Bruce Springsteen wrote a longform instrumental work and then ran out onstage to sing "Born in the U.S.A." 

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