At 67, Eric Idle is one of comedy's most active entrepeneurs. Forever known as a writer-performer in seminal sketch troupe Monty Python's Flying Circus, Idle has, for the last decade, done most of his acting work in voice-over, but he has taken a cue from Mel Brooks and creatively recycled his best material in new media. Idle has been the prime force behind Pythonline.com, toured with mostly old material on 2003's "The Greedy Bastard Tour," and in 2004 collaborated with orchestrator John Du Prez and director Mike Nichols on Spamalot, a musical comedy based on the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Talking of "greedy," there's a tendency on the part of many fans to complain about the repurposing of old material rather than the creation of fresh concepts. That's understandable, but then again works like Spamalot and the recent Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy) don't exactly qualify Idle for accusations of resting on his laurels.
Much as I'd like to see new material, I found myself won over by Not the Messiah, officially described as "a comic oratorio by Eric Idle & John Du Prez in Five Parts for Orchestra, Soloists and Chorus Inspired by Monty Python's Life of Brian." The very concept of turning 1979's Life of Brian, itself a filmic spoof of Biblical epics, into a spoof of Handel's Messiah is funny, and the name—riffing on one of Life of Brian's most famous lines—is genius (makes sense: Idle was always Python's top wordsmith, master of comically mangled locution). Also billed as a fortieth-anniversary concert in honor of Monty Python itself, the performance now available on film comes from the piece's only European performance, in October 2009, at the Royal Albert All. This, too, adds to the humor of the concept, which has the tenor of a performance-art prank. Doing crucifixion gags in formal wear at a venerable institution, supported by orchestra, soloists, and chorus must be its own reward, but the Albert Hall crowd is loving every minute of it and obligingly lets Idle and company know with loud laughter, applause, and not some not especially formal hooting.
Thanks to soloists Idle, British mezzo-soprano Rosalind Plowright, Canadian soprano Shannon Mercer, American tenor William Ferguson, and British bass-baritone Christopher Purves, Not the Messiah indeed tells the complete story of the life of Brian Cohen (Ferguson), in classical-music form. In true Python fashion, much of the idea is to deflate pomposity by exaggerating that pomposity and within that stylistic hyperbole employing amusing understatement. Take for example "Oh God You Are So Big!" (but don't think about that name too much out of context...nudge nudge):
O God you are so big.
You are so very huge.
My word what a size you are.
And we are tiny in thy sight.
So very small, and very grotty.
And smelly. And stupid. And cheesy and spotty.
You are so big. We are so small.
You are so huge. We are so tiny.
You are so big and we are naughty in thy sight.
Now, nearly an hour and a half of this sort of thing will test the patience of some, which is why Idle and DuPrez—whenever they sense interest might flag—precociously infuse inappropriate musical styles: doo wop, spiritual, flamenco, tango, mariachi, musical theater, opera (specifically, an operatic orgasm), and a touch of military tattoo. The concert performance also benefits from the jolts provided by Idle's Python brethren. Michael Palin appears (first decked out something like Maggie Thatcher, later to reprise his roles as Pontius Pilate and Nisus Wettus), as do Terry Jones (leading a number dressed as a Welsh coal miner) and Terry Gilliam, who makes a joke out of his near-uselessness in such a context. "Seventh Python" candidates Carol Cleveland and Neil Innes also make brief appearances.
Mostly, Idle and Du Prez don't stray very far from their source, excepting an emphatic strain of (American-aimed) Republican jokes. Idle does break out a weak Bob Dylan impression for one movement (he'd have been better off inviting Innes, who does a hilarious pastiche Dylan, to do it instead). Of course, it all culminates in the inevitable big finale, a rousing delivery of the famous, incongruous crucifixion number "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." The encore that follows the curtain call is shameless but crowd-pleasing, a fair description of the entire wacked-out evening.
Sony's hi-def Blu-ray release of Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy) features a tight and colorful image that's bound to please any viewer, but the real show is in the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, which crucially gives a rich, full-bodied and immersive treatment to the oratorio. As usual, Sony's A/V presentation doesn't miss a trick.
"The Road to the Albert Hall" (31:02, HD) is a terrific behind-the-scenes look at the origin of the piece and the rehearsals and psyching up before the Albert Hall performance. Interviewed are Eric Idle, John Du Prez, Paul Hughes of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Shannon Mercer, Rosalind Plowright O.B.E., Terry Jones, William Ferguson, Christopher Purves, Michael Palin, Carol Cleveland, and Neil Innes.
"Showtime!" (3:07, HD) is a fleet promo-style look at the excitement before the show, with brief comments from Palin, Jones, Idle, Cleveland, and Du Prez.
"The Bright Side..." (2:57, HD) finds Idle explaining the creation and endurance of the song "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life."
The disc also includes six "Sing-Alongs" (17:52 with "Play All" option, HD): "What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?", "The People's Front of Judea," "You're the One," "Amourdeus," "Take Us Home," and "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life."
Lastly, the disc is equipped with movieIQ and BD-Live.
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer