'Rutlemania': Musical Mystery Tour Proves You Can Kid a Kidder

Dirk, Nasty, Stig and Barry, the original Rutles, whose music bore a striking resemblance to the Beatles'.
Dirk, Nasty, Stig and Barry, the original Rutles, whose music bore a striking resemblance to the Beatles'. (Rutlemania)
  Enlarge Photo    
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 29, 2008

NEW YORK -- You could call it a concert by a band re-creating the music of a fake band that satirized the songs of a real band. Or maybe it's a reenactment by four men of four men farcically reenacting the lives of four other men. Or maybe it's a new genre of rock: heavy meta.

However you describe it, "Rutlemania," which tonight ends a four-night stand in New York, is a hall of mirrors set to a beat, laugh track sold separately. The nominal point was to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the release of "All You Need Is Cash," a mockumentary that told the fictional story of Dirk, Nasty, Stig and Barry of a band called the Rutles, whose lives, music and follies closely track the lives, music and follies of the Beatles. So "Rutlemania" is media mash-up, a live band playing beneath a movie screen, a little bit of "Rocky Horror Picture Show" atmospherics, plus a lot of trouser jokes.

In "Cash," everything about the Fab Four was tweaked just enough to render John, Paul, George and Ringo faintly preposterous. The narrator of the film -- former Monty Python Eric Idle, who also plays Dirk, the Paul McCartney knockoff -- says the Rutles (rhymes with shuttles) played one of their most famous concerts in Che Stadium, "named after the Cuban guerrilla leader, Che Stadium." When Nasty, the John Lennon character, falls in love, it's with a Yoko-ish experimental artist dressed in a Nazi outfit whose father, we learn, "invented World War II." The band dissolves rancorously, just like the Beatles. "In December 1970," the narrator says, "Dirk sued Stig and Nasty, Barry sued Dirk, Nasty sued Stig and Barry, and Stig sued himself accidentally."

"All You Need Is Cash" pretty much bombed when it aired on NBC, coming in 76th in the ratings that week in 1978. (No. 1 that week: An episode of "Charlie's Angels.") But "Cash" is beloved by Beatles fans, not least for its songs, an imitation of Beatles style that managed the astounding trick of exalting the originals and belittling them at the same time. So the idea behind "Rutlemania" was to reprise those songs with the help of a Beatles cover band, in this case a well-regarded outfit called, confusingly enough, the Fab Four. (For the sake of clarity the band will be referred to henceforth as "the Fab Four.")

If the layers of lampoonery sound confounding on paper, they weren't in Blender Theater on Thursday night. The strange part, instead, was the uncanny quiet of the room. All the Beatles footage you've ever seen includes a quick cut to a crowd in the midst of a blissful meltdown. Of course, you can't expect pandemonium from a band simulating a satiric simulation, especially in a room with a few hundred seats, dozens of which are empty, the rest of which are filled with men over 40. Including Salman Rushdie. How much leaping and shouting do you think Salman Rushdie does?

But those facts only partially minimize the weirdness of sitting and listening to a Rutles track like "Number One," an imitation of the Beatles circa 1964, and realizing that you're sitting. Because everyone is sitting. Because it would be odd to do anything but sit.

It was a crowd reaction befitting a movie, which seemed apt as soon as it became clear that "All You Need Is Cash" would play on a large screen behind the band. When the Rutles are shown singing, the movie synced to the band's live performance. And the movie played when the group went backstage for one of its many costume changes. Two female dancers accompanied the band, reflecting the way fans of the Beatles changed both their outfits and their shimmying over the years.

It's a testimony to the enduring hilarity of "Cash" that within 20 minutes it was obvious that the film would upstage the band. "Cash" eventually inspired films like "This Is Spinal Tap," which fired at a far broader target, hard rock itself. But part of the genius of "Cash" is its specificity. The movie flatters Beatles obsessives by taking minutiae only a hard-core fan would know and turning it into an inside joke. If, for instance, you know that the Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein, wrote a book called "A Cellarful of Noise," you'll be tickled that the manager of the Rutles, Leggy Mountbatten, wrote a book called "A Cellarful of Goys."

The Beatles themselves reacted very differently to "Cash." Lennon responded to one fan who asked for his thoughts about the movie by singing part of "Cheese and Onions," a song parody of Lennon's late period writing. (Chorus: "Do I have to spell it/C-H-E-E-S-E-A-N-D-O-N-I-O-N-S oh no.") McCartney was apparently unamused until learning that Neil Innes, who wrote the Rutles songs and plays the Lennon character, was, like Macca, from the north of England. Ringo is said to like the stuff about events after 1968, for some reason. George Harrison has a cameo in the movie -- he plays a reporter, doing a story about the looting of the Rutles corporation. He reportedly referred to the Beatles as the Rutles for years.

This might have been Harrison's way of dealing with and minimizing the myth of the Beatles, but perhaps he also appreciated that you can mock something and love it, too. The fans of "Cash" get that, particularly the ones who showed up Thursday night. When the movie ended, "the Fab Four" did a few songs as the Fab Four and for the first time, the crowd stood up and danced.

Everybody loves a good ironic joke, but if you want people to twist and shout, it seems, you've still got to imitate the real thing.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company