In celebration of their fortieth anniversary, the members of Monty Python, five living and one who has “expired and gone to meet 'is maker,” have once again been gathered together, separately, to tell the group’s history through a series of interviews and archival footage in Almost The Truth, a six-part documentary that aired on IFC. Also, on hand on are contemporaries, comedians influenced by the troupe, and even famous fans. The Blu-ray is a two-disc set.
Episode 1, “The Not-So-Interesting Beginnings,” looks at the men’s upbringing and how they came together. The surreal comic radio program The Goon Show, starring Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, is cited as a major influence for some of the members as is the stage revue Beyond the Fringe with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Other than American Terry Gilliam, the Pythons attended Cambridge (Chapman, John Cleese, and Eric Idle) and Oxford (Terry Jones and Michael Palin) and got involved putting on revues. They became aware and impressed with each other’s work. Gilliam left Minnesota for New York to do humor magazine work. While there, he met Cleese who was performing in a show and made his way to London.
They began to write for and perform on television programs, including That Was The Week That Was, At Last The 1948 Report, and Do Not Adjust Your Set where they met Neil Innes, who became an auxiliary Python contributing material and acting in small parts. The six decided to work together and create a show.
This first episode reveals the rest of the documentary will likely be as impressive because it is filled with archival photos and videos, the latter of which is particularly interesting as it allows Chapman to contribute his reflections. The filmmakers also interviewed his partner David Sherlock.
Episode 2, “The Much Funnier Second Episode,” focuses on their influential television series Monty’s Python’s Flying Circus and the work involved as they dealt with the demands of the BBC and each other. In addition to themselves, the long list of speakers includes British comedians Russell Brand, Steve Coogan, Stephen Merchant, Simon Pegg, and Eddie Izzard. Also taking part are musicians Bruce Dickinson and Nick Mason as well as Americans Seth Greene and Dan Aykroyd. A great many had trouble naming their favorite sketch when asked because of the great amount of material the Pythons had.
Episode 3, “And Now, The Sordid Personal Bits,” reveals the struggles to keep Monty Python going. Cleese felt they were repeating themselves in the second series and didn’t want to come back, but he acquiesced for the third and even contributed some writing for the fourth and final series. With Cleese gone, the BBC only commissioned six instead of 13 like the previous seasons and had the name shortened to just Monty Python. It’s fascinating to hear them analyze each other and their respective roles within in the group. They also discussed the difficulty of Chapman’s alcoholism.
Amazingly, the BBC almost wiped the tapes, which was an unfortunate standard practice, but they bought the shows back. Since there was no home video, vinyl records preserved and spread their work.
Episode 4, “The Ultimate Holy Grail Episode,” they talk about coming to America. The film And Now For Something Completely Different, a 90-minute sketch collection from the first two TV series, was supposed to help introduce, but it wasn’t until they got on PBS that the country took notice. As the title suggests, also in this episode is a look at Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which bands like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin helped finance. Apparently Elvis Presley loved the film.
Disc 2 begins with Episode 5, “Lust for Glory,” which focuses on the making and aftermath of Life of Brian. George Harrison came through when EMI backed out. The controversy gets a good bit of coverage with the best bit being Palin and Cleese debating with Malcolm Muggeridge and Arthur Mervyn Stockwood (the Bishop of Southwark) on a British TV program hosted by Tim Rice. I would have loved the whole segment as an extra.
Episode 6 “Finally! The Last Episode (Ever) (For Now….) concludes the documentary and the nearly 30 years to bring things up to present day. It covers the concert film Live at the Hollywood Bowl, their last film The Meaning of Life, Chapman’s death from cancer at the age 48 in 1989, attempted reunions, and the musical Spamalot.
In addition to the documentary, Disc 2 presents sketches to show what all the fuss is about and provides a range of their work. They are “The Parrot Sketch,” “Spanish Inquisition,” “The Fish Slapping Dance,” “Ministry of Silly Walks,” “Lumberjack Song,” “The Cheese Shop,” and “SPAM.” There is also 66 minutes of “Extended Interviews with the Pythons,” with some of the material in the documentary, and 49 minutes of outtakes, which are more accurately deleted scenes, such as “The Seventh Python,” “The Hendon Sketch,” “The Origins Of The Cheese Shop,” “Python on Python,” “The Spam Museum,” “Python in Texas,” “Tomorrow’s World’s ‘The Broken Bottle’,” “Elvis Was A Python Fan,” and “The Origins of Fawlty Towers.” Two standouts are Steve Coogan reciting “The Undertaker” sketch and “Bruce Dickinson Registers A Complaint” where he tells a crazy story about engaging in German prostitution, which resulted in his quoting “The Parrot Sketch” at a police station.
As impressive as a documentary as this is, Almost The Truth is limited in what it offers on Blu-ray, and the DVD likely delivers a similar presentation. The aspect ratio constantly changes depending on the material shown. Flying Circus and Hollywood Bowl look decent but nothing special while the color and detail of the Holy Grail footage will make you want to buy it on Blu-ray. Most of the footage of the recently recorded interviews also looks very good; however, there are a few moments where the green screen in the background can be seen through a subject’s hair or glasses.
While the audio options claim to be LPCM Stereo and Dolby Digital Surround Sound 5.1, the audio, which was people talking for the vast majority of the project, only came out the front center speaker.
If not the best, Almost The Truth is certainly the latest commemoration of Monty Python and the documentary has a lot to offer fans. Well worth seeing.