Saturday, June 28, 2008

Two Days of Peace, Love, and Neil Innes

Or, anyhow, two days of Neil Innes. You can keep the Peace and Love.

The occasion was the Annual Mods & Rockers Film Festival at the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theatre. American Cinematheque is a nonprofit film society that operates two major theatres in the LA area (one in Hollywood, the other in Santa Monica).

Grauman's Chinese Theatre is world-famous--it's the one with all the celebrity handprints (and sometimes other body-part-prints) in the cement out front. Grauman's Egyptian Theatre, only two blocks down Hollywood Blvd, is more striking than the Chinese Theatre, but it had fallen into such disrepair that in the mid-90s the city sold it to American Cinematheque for $1 on the understanding they would restore it to its original Art Deco glory and reopen it for public screenings. American Cinematheque put $15 million into the renovation, and the result is a gorgeous hybrid of Old Hollywood and modern tech.

For those benighted souls amongst you who don't know of Mr. Innes, I offer this brief resume. He was one of the founding (and continuing) members of the magnificent Bonzo Dog Dada Band (later known as the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, the Bonzo Dog Band, or simply The Bonzos). If you aren't familiar with the Bonzo Dog Band you are culturally deprived, but I won't try to describe the band--you'll have to check for yourself. (The albums Gorilla, Tadpoles, and Let's Make Up and Be Friendly are highly recommended as introductions.) because there is no one else like them. Some explain the Bonzos by describing them as the British equivalent to Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, but the only commonality is that both were utterly original.

Innes and the late, magnificently peculiar Vivian Stanshall were the most prolific songwriters of the Bonzos. Among the fine songs they penned was the faux-Elvis number "Death Cab for Cutie," which since has been adopted as the name of one of America's best recent bands.

Neil Innes then went on to write or cowrite much of the music for Monthy Python, including "Brave Sir Robin" in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (Innes plays Robin's minstrel--and also the forehead-whacking chanting lead monk, as well as the followers who are crushed by a cow and, later, by a Trojan Rabbit catapulted from the castle by French soldiers.) Innes wrote for the Pythons in their last season, and also toured with them and provided musical interludes (including his well-known song "How Sweet to be an Idiot").

After the Python heyday, Innes and Eric Idle formed The Rutles. Innes wrote more than a dozen brilliant Beatlesque songs and starred in the movies The Rutles: All You Need is Cash and The Rutles II: Can't Buy Me Lunch.

Since then, Innes has been involved in dozens of projects and a series of solo albums, and has toured both in Europe and the US. But although everyone in the music business knows him, his public profile has never been high--partly because he loathes the celebrity racket.

Innes and his strange relationship to fame and obscurity is the topic of the new film The Seventh Python, and we attended the premiere at the spectacular Egyptian . The film was followed by a Q&A session with director Burt Kearns, writer-producer Brett Hudson, and a somewhat diffident and embarassed Neil Innes.

This is turn was followed by the world premiere of Neil Innes' short 1963 art-school thesis film (untitled, but starring Viv Stanshall, "Legs" Larry Smith, Roger Ruskin-Spear, and Yvonne Innes), and the evening was rounded out by the world premiere of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band 40th Anniversary Concert film. Three world premieres in one night--a long, five-hour evening.

But even that wasn't the end. Neil came back the next evening to play a benefit concert for the theatre. We'd seen him on his last tour, but the low-key concert at the Egyptian was even better than his tour show--probably because of the friends-and-family feel of the whole affair.

So my brain is Innes-saturated this morning. Not a bad way to be...but I wish I could stop humming the Rutles song "Cheese and Onions" for a few moments.


Harvey said...

So what did you think of The Seventh Python?

review, please!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Harvey--

I thought The Seventh Python was a marvelous, thought-provoking film. Rather than a rehash of the career of Neil Innes, it was an important meditation on the problem of art and fame.

The first human problem is physical survival--how to find food and shelter. Once those needs are satisfied, then we are faced with the deeper question of what we want to do with our lives.

The artist faces a similar progression of questions. The first problem facing creative people is how to support themselves while doing their work. For most of them, this means either doing creative work as a "hobby" while earning a living through other means, or putting considerable effort into promoting themselves and their projects.

But promotion is a marketplace activity, and if you're not a natural self-promoter, success puts strange and conflicting pressures on you. Neil Innes lives permanently on the edge between fame and anonymity, and it's clear that particular edge is an uncomfortable place to reside. He obviously doesn't want to be a celebrity--but he also needs to maintain a certain degree of public prominence to have the means to do his art.

Anyone who works in the creative arts, from the very public world or performance to the more private world of writing, ought to see this film. Beneath a light, fluffy surface, it is asking some very deep questions.

David Isaak said...

PS Now aren't you sorry you asked?

Creative A said...

I hate going to sleep with songs in my head. The next three days I'll wake up singing them, and whenever I'm daydreaming I'll start singing them, and whenever I'm listening to OTHER music I'll begin humming them...0.o...

For knowing nothing about Neil Innes, I have a strange sensation of understanding the guy. Neat review.

How Publishing Really Works said...

Neil Innes is a lovely man--I had the pleasure of sharing dinner with him once, about twenty years ago, and I've always remembered him. I'll watch out for the film. Thank you!


David Isaak said...

Hi, Creative...

Check out the movie...if it ever gets into general release.

David Isaak said...

Hi, How Publishing--


How Publishing Really Works said...

Wow, indeed.

It's better than that, though: I met Neil at Terry Jones's house, and Terry Gilliam was there too.

Bow down before me and kiss my feet. I have Dined With Pythons on more than one occasion.



David Isaak said...

Yikes! (Sound of hat being doffed...)