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Monty Python: Almost The Truth

Vivendi Entertainment // Unrated // October 27, 2009
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted October 22, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Series:
I probably don't have to spend a lot of time telling you that Monty Python's Flying Circus was an incredibly influential and ground breaking comedy show.  If you need convincing, think back at how many comedy acts you can name from 40 years ago or more.  The list will consist of the greats:  Lucile Ball, Burns and Allen, Jack Benny, and Monty Python.  (Other shows from 30 or 40 years ago aren't funny at all today.  Have you seen The Flip Wilson Show, or Laugh-in recently?)  To celebrate the 40th anniversary of their first show, a six-part documentary was made with the full cooperation of the 5 surviving Pythons:  Monty Python:  Almost the Truth - The Lawyer's Cut.  The series that just aired last week (as I write this) has been released on Blu-ray (or soon will be.)  It's a great look back at the group and their output and well worth watching for the Python fan.
Monty Python consisted of six people:  Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin.  Most of them had worked together on a British TV show, The Frost Report and a few years later decided to join together to pitch a show to the BBC.  As John Cleese, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, and Michael Palin describe the scene, they met with the head of Light Entertianment, Michael Mills, it was the worst pitch ever.   "He said 'Well what do you want to do?' We said, 'We want to do a funny show.'  He said 'What's the show going to be about?' We said 'We don't know, really.'  He said, 'Well, now, what about film, are you going to use a lot of film?' Ws said, 'Oh umm, film.  Are we going to use film?  Yeah, we'll probably use some film.'  Then he said, 'Well, is it going to have any music in it?' 'Ummm... no, no, no.'  'Is it going to have any guest stars?'  'We haven't thought about that.'  He said 'Well, what's it going to be called?'  'We haven't got a title.'  It was the worst interview that any group or any one has ever done.  Then they all go looking at each other and saying, 'Well.... I'll give you 13 shows, but that's all!'  The rest, as they say, is history.
This six-part documentary covers the whole history of Monty Python, starting with the childhood of the members, through their college days when they first started acting and writing, the formation of Python, the shows, records, films, public appearances and their legacies.  All of the surviving members of the troupe (Graham Chapman died in 1989, but he's represented by his partner and some of his friends) are filmed and open up about their experiences and that footage is cut with clips from their shows and films, and other comedians (Steve Merchant, Eddie Izzard, and Russell Brand among others) commenting on the influence Python had how the group affected comedy world wide.
Some of the more interesting moments include their discussion of the controversy that the movie The Life of Brian caused in both England and the US.  There are some wonderful clips of John and Michael Palin debating the merits of the movie with a Bishop and some other conservative.  I would have really liked to see the whole show, but the segments that are provided show the two Pythons having the upper hand, and being quite amusing at the same time.
They also talk a fair amount about their last film, The Meaning of Life.  I was cheered to hear the group more or less admit that it was a failure, and it was interesting to hear about the film's genesis.  Basically after Brian did so well at the box office, a promoter said that if they would do one more movie they could make so much money that they'd never have to work again.  This was appealing, obviously, and they would get together and write for a bit, break apart, come back and write some more, but they were never able to latch on to a single idea and run with it.   As Cleese says, doing a skit movie at that part of their careers was going backwards. 
The show has to walk a fine line.  The Pythons spend a lot of time talking about various skits and moments from their films, and those have to be shown.  Everyone who would be interested in this documentary has already seen them over and over though, so they can't show them too often or have the clips be too long or the flow would be lost.  While there were a couple of parts where I thought that the program was a bit clip-heavy, they generally did a great job of balancing clips and interviews.
The only real part of the Python story that I thought was glossed over a bit were their records.  In the days before VCRs I tracked down every python record I could (including the three sided record... on side was a regular recording but the other had two grooves instead of one so every time you started the record you weren't sure of which track you were going to hear.  Wonderfully brilliant!)  The show does touch on their recordings and how they helped them in America, but I would have enjoyed a bit more depth.  Aside from that, it is a very complete look at one of history's great comedy troupes.
The Blu-ray Disc:

These six hour-long episodes come on two Blu-ray discs.  The first has four episodes and the second disc finishes off the series and includes the bonuses.
The 1080i MPEG-4 AVC encoded disc looks pretty good, though there aren't a lot of impressive visuals to begin with.  Most of the series consists of the 5 remaining Pythons being interviewed in front of black backgrounds (it looks like they this background was added in post production) and the level of detail is fine.  The classic clips from their shows aren't as impressive, naturally, as most of this was recorded on tape in SD.  The segments taken from Life of Brian have a bit of odd coloring, the skin tones look a bit on the red side, but this was minor.  It's nothing to crow about, but the transfer gets the job done.
The series is presented with a LPCM stereo track and a DD 5.1 surround track also.  I checked both tracks and they were both fine though nothing really outstanding.  This is a documentary and there just isn't much you can do with a talking head to make it aurally exciting.  The dialog was clean and clear and easy to understand, even with the accents some of the guests spoke with.  There was a few surround effects used in some of the clips, but these were minor.  Overall, this is one of those audio tracks where there's not much to say.
There are a lot of fun bonus items included on the second disc.  Just in case viewers don't have all of Python already on DVD, there's a selection of their best sketches (in 480i/p).  These include Dead Parrot, The Spanish Inquisition, The Fish Slapping Dance, Ministry of Silly Walks, Lumberjack Song, The Cheese Shop, and SPAM.  These run nearly 30 minutes and are arguably the funniest half an hour to ever appear on TV.   There are also extended interviews with all five surviving Pythons, which run a bit over an hour all together.
There are also eleven scenes that were cut from the final production and run about 50 minutes all told.  It's like getting an extra episode for free.  These bits cover the origin of the cheese shop sketch, more of the guys giving their opinions of the other members, a visit to the SPAM museum including an exhibit on the Python sketch, and a non-python sketch by Michael Palin and Terry Jones.  The bonus section wraps up with an image gallery of Terry Gilliam's work.
Final Thoughts:
I started watching Python on PBS back in the mid 70's.  I've seen every one of their movies in the theater (along with many of their solo projects.  Who else went to see The Missionary?), bought their records and even the books.  While much of this information has been available in other places, it was very nice to hear the story of Monty Python in their own words straight from their mouths.  The members relate a lot of humorous anecdotes and while it's not a comedy, this documentary is very enjoyable, especially for hard core Python fans.  Recommended.
Note: The images in this review are not from the Blu-ray disc and do not necessarily represent the image quality on the disc.
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