Over the years there have been many films made about The Beatles, ranging from entertaining to cringe-inducing. One of my absolute favourites is not a straightforward biopic of the band, but rather a parody of them — The Rutles, or to give it its full title, All You Need Is Cash.
Released in 1978 as a TV film for NBC in America and the BBC in Britain, The Rutles was the brainchild of Eric Idle and Neil Innes (of Monty Python and Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band fame respectively) and was one of the earliest mockumentaries. The concept began life as a sketch on Idle’s post-Python TV comedy show Rutland Weekend Television, and on realising that they were onto something good, the film followed.
With songs written by Innes, the film chronicles The Rutles’ career, parodying all the famous milestones in the real story of The Beatles. As well as playing the role of the narrator, Idle portrays Dirk McQuickly — the fictional version of Paul McCartney. Innes plays Ron Nasty (aka John Lennon), and the line-up is completed by Stig O’Hara (the George Harrison character, played by Ricky Fataar) and Barry Wom (based on Ringo Starr, played by John Halsey).
You don’t have to be a Beatles obsessive to find this film hilarious, but familiarity with their history certainly helps in understanding where the references are coming from. And there are a lot of them; from Dirk’s admission that The Rutles have had “lots of tea” (sending up The Beatles’ experimentation with LSD) to Nasty’s infamous “bigger than God” remark (which was misheard by the journalist — what he actually meant was that they were bigger than Rod Stewart).
The film also features a host of stars, including Dan Aykroyd as the man who turned down The Rutles, John Belushi as the shady Allen Klein-type character, Ron Decline, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Ronnie Wood and Paul Simon. Mick Jagger appeared as himself, talking about how The Rutles wrote a song for The Rolling Stones (“it was horrible”), which was a reference to The Beatles giving them ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ to record in the early days. Idle’s fellow Python, Michael Palin, played Eric Manchester (modelled on The Beatles’ press officer Derek Taylor) in an interview scene in front of the Rutle Corps headquarters. The interviewer was played by none other than George Harrison himself.
In that hilarious scene, both characters are oblivious to the chaos going on behind them during the interview as people steal items from the Rutle Corps building. This, of course, is a nod to The Beatles’ admission that the same thing was happening towards the end of Apple.
The songs themselves are brilliant parodies of the real Beatles music. Neil Innes did a fantastic job at making them sound familiar enough for fans to recognise which song was being sent up, but different enough to get away with it. The lyrics are clever and funny, as you might expect from someone who was a member of the legendary Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, and the melodies are so catchy that you find yourself humming them afterwards. I’ve often had a Rutles song stuck in my head instead of its equivalent Beatles track!
So what did The Beatles themselves think of The Rutles? George, of course, was a huge fan — he did make a cameo appearance, after all, and he was a very close friend of Eric Idle’s and a big supporter of Monty Python (having financed Life Of Brian through his company, Handmade Films, simply because he wanted to see it made). He said of the project:
“Even though it was a parody it was the nicest thing about The Beatles. Really, The Rutles sort of liberated me from The Beatles in a way. It was the only thing I saw of those Beatles television shows they made. It was actually the best, funniest and most scathing. But at the same time, it was done with the most love.”
John also loved the film and was not in the least bit upset by the sequence parodying his relationship with Yoko Ono, in which Ron Nasty’s wife, Charity, was depicted as a woman in Nazi uniform “whose father had invented World War II.” According to Eric Idle, both John and Yoko found this hilarious. Which, when you think about it, is unsurprising given John’s wicked sense of humour.
Ringo reportedly enjoyed the film’s happier scenes (but not the ones that were based on the more poignant moments), while Paul was apparently not too keen on it to begin with. However, his view seems to have softened over the years, and he even mentioned it in a 2004 magazine interview, comparing one of its scenes to The Beatles’ real situation.
Not only is The Rutles arguably the best solo project by any of the Pythons, it stands up as one of the best Beatles-related films ever made.