Film Commentary: Monkee Python and the Heady Grail
The quality of the experience has as much to do with the star’s in-person performance as it does with the film itself.
By Jason M. Rubin
If you hadn’t noticed, there’s a trend in the entertainment industry today. Actors are hitting the road with iconic films of theirs, and commanding robust ticket prices simply by accompanying a screening and talking about the movie a bit. I am aware of four such events that hit the Boston area recently: Ted Neeley with Jesus Christ Superstar at the Regent Theatre in Arlington on June 15; John Cusack with High Fidelity at the Boch Center Wang Theatre on June 23; Micky Dolenz of the Monkees with Head at the Regent on July 6; and John Cleese with Monty Python and the Holy Grail at Lynn Auditorium on July 21. I attended the latter two of these shows and by that small sample size I would say that the quality of the experience has as much to do with the star’s in-person performance as it does with the film itself.
Of course, while there is a clear trend for this kind of packaging, the concept is not new. I recall seeing a showing of Robert Mugge’s brilliant documentary Gospel According to Al Green at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on October 25, 1985 (exact date courtesy of Mugge’s website), with both the filmmaker and the Rev. Green himself in attendance; in fact, Green performed three songs accompanying himself on the guitar, which not only was worth the price of admission in and of itself, but remains a live music highlight of my life.
One of the drivers behind this film-plus-star format is a company called The Backlot Project, which produced the Cleese and Cusack events. Its website also notes a number of other tours (none of which are slated for the Boston area), including Mel Brooks with Blazing Saddles (which did play in Boston in 2016) and Spaceballs; William Shatner with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan; Cusack again with Say Anything; and Barry Bostwick with The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
A major motivation for these events is that it’s easy money for the star. No costumes, lighting, songs, or casts required. Just bring the film, sit in a chair, and talk to the audience (typically, the stars are interviewed by someone on stage; in the case of Cleese, it was more of a Q&A format, though he clearly had prepared material, which was very funny indeed). There is usually merchandise for sale as well. For the Dolenz show, which was affiliated with the NorthEast Comic Con, autographs and photo ops were $40 apiece, with a portion of proceeds going to the Make a Wish Foundation.
So ultimately, I have two events to compare and contrast: Dolenz and Cleese. It must be said that both their films, Head and Holy Grail, are cult classics, which attracts a certain nerd (or geek, if you prefer) element. Holy Grail is by far the better known movie, and much of the audience recited many of the lines in time with the film. Certain scenes were also rewarded with applause. What this meant is that if you didn’t know the film quite so well, you probably didn’t hear a lot of the dialogue. True fans like myself, however, delighted in the shared mania with my fellow moviegoers.
Another similarity was the discrepancy between how Dolenz and Cleese looked on film (in 1968 and 1975, respectively) and how they look today. Less hair, more jowls, and bigger waistlines made it clear that these movies were made long ago. And, in both cases, there were melancholy undercurrents because of the reminders of deceased colleagues (Monkee Davy Jones died in 2012, Python Graham Chapman in 1989). Still, to the truly fanatic audiences they played to, both Dolenz and Cleese were treated as conquering heroes and were awash with true affection.
Of the two, Cleese was the funnier, the more dynamic, and the more interesting. Dolenz had a habit of giving excruciatingly long answers to questions and tended to repeat himself. Cleese told a number of anecdotes that many Python fans already knew, but to hear them from the horse’s mouth made them fresh and special. He departed from the Q&A to speak on such topics as black comedy, racial humor, and which of the other Pythons he finds most irritating (they all garnered some good-natured ribbing, though his antipathy for Terry Gilliam came across as genuine). An added treat was the fact that the moderator was his daughter, Camilla Cleese, a professional comedienne in her own right, who was given a prompt by her father to launch into a routine at one point and it was very good.
As for the future, I am eager to see what other such events might come to the area. Though it strikes me as lazily lucrative for the celebrities, it’s also a wonderful treat for fans who can see their idols in a fairly intimate setting and learn some behind-the-scenes information about films they love. Personally, I would pay any amount for Al Pacino to come around with Dog Day Afternoon, or Meryl Streep with Out of Africa — or even Ringo Starr with A Hard Day’s Night.
Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for 33 years, the last 18 of which has been as senior writer at Libretto, a Boston-based strategic communications agency. An award-winning copywriter, he holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, maintains a blog called Dove Nested Towers, and for four years served as communications director and board member of AIGA Boston, the local chapter of the national association for graphic arts. His first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012.