The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash
(Rhino Video)

The Rutles 2: Can't Buy Me Lunch
(Warner Home Video)

After being confronted by some friends about my Kids in the Hall/SCTV column a few weeks back, I was inspired to do a little more debunking. This week: the Rutles. Verdict: not funny. I've rented it at least a dozen times, always quitting around 15 minutes in, frustrated by Eric Idle's stilted performance, the obviousness of the puns, and the degree to which the entire enterprise rests on the relatively simple task of re-creating the super-familiar iconography of the greatest artistic project of the 20th century (FACT!).

I can understand how these re-creations would have had a lot more cultural traction in the late '70s, when the Beatles' breakup was still an active source of woe among pop music fans. Before artifacts like The Compleat Beatles (1984) and the far more exhaustive The Beatles Anthology (1996), the footage that the Rutles so deftly imitates existed primarily in the memory of first-generation Beatles fans. Credit is due to Eric Idle and co-director Gary Weis--whose early SNL shorts were always full of low-budget visual invention--for tapping the vein of '60s nostalgia while the '50s nostalgia craze was in full swing (and before the nostalgia industry had become institutionalized). The problem now is that the actual primary-secondary source material, the endless oceans of Beatles film, photos, interviews, and writings, is readily available--indeed, practically inescapable. This makes the job of parodying it all the more difficult. It's not enough to merely mimic.

The original Rutles film had a handful of very funny jokes (alongside a lot more dumb ones) and some inspired supporting performances from Michael Palin, John Belushi, and Mick Jagger, but its best feature by far was the music. Neil Innes' brilliant parodies were melodically respectful--and catchy--without missing a single chance to puncture the built-in absurdity of all pop. (Hence "Ouch!" instead of "Help!" and so forth.) The best of his songs combined recognizable elements from multiple Beatles songs, a method echoed in the film, which allowed Beatles archetypes to bleed together, yielding a parody that was--if not loving, or even particularly hilarious--at least loyal to the spirit of Beatles superfandom.

The same cannot be said for The Rutles 2: Can't Buy Me Lunch, written, directed, and produced by Idle in 2002, freshly out on DVD. This quasi-sequel just repeats and repeats and repeats its one and only joke; all it adds is polished production. Idle enlists a bunch of once-funny movie stars (Tom Hanks, Steve Martin, Robin Williams) to help him repeat the unfunny joke, while trotting out footage that didn't make the cut the first time around. Also, the new songs aren't good. Also Jimmy Fallon is in it. Also, there's a quizzical air of desperation surrounding the entire enterprise--the celebrity talking heads practically beg for sympathy laughs; and even though a few come, it's excruciating. Instead of mimicking the Beatles, or even the rockumentary form, Can't Buy Me Lunch just mimics its original version, and who the hell wants to see that?

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