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New Documentary Looks on the Bright Side of Neil Innes

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It is in tune with Neil Innes' whimsical sense of the absurd that the 32nd Annual Fest for Beatles Fans recently at the Hyatt Regency O'Hare featured what was billed as "the second world premiere" of the documentary, "The Seventh Python."

Innes, who has been hailed as a "partially discovered genius," is the first to admit that he is an unlikely subject for a documentary. He has never, as he remarks in the film, been one to play "the fame game." His favorite line in the film comes from a bystander, one of many who, in a running joke, cannot identify a photograph of Innes. "You've made a documentary about someone who no one knows," the man observes.

But Innes, 63, looms large in music and comedy circles for his scant degree of separation from both the Beatles and Monty Python's Flying Circus. He was a member of cult faves The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, who appeared in "Magical Mystery Tour" performing the song "Death Cab for Cutie" (hence the name of the band). Paul McCartney, under the alias Apollo C. Vermouth, produced the Bonzos' lone hit, "Urban Spaceman." The Bonzos were later the house band on a loony British television children's series, "Do Not Adjust Your Set," which featured future Pythons Eric Idle, Michael Palin, and Terry Jones. Innes contributed music for the Python films (the whistling bit in "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life?" That was Innes' inspiration), and he appeared in sketches during the Cleese-less series of episodes of the TV show, and in the films (he had a cow dropped on him in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail").

Perhaps his greatest claim to fame for Beatles fans is his role as Ron Nasty, the Lennon-esque member of The Rutles, the subject of Idle's affectionately observed mockumentary, "The Rutles: All You Need is Cash," which spoofed the Beatles' career in chronicling the story of the Pre-Fab Four, "whose legend lasted a lunchtime."

In addition to supporting "The Seventh Python," Innes was here to mark the 30th anniversary of Rutles-mania. Actually, Rutles-ennui would be more accurate. Broadcast on NBC in 1978, "Cash" was the lowest rated show that week. But from Innes' uncanny soundtrack of pitch-perfect Beatles-esque tunes ("Cheese and Onions," "Ouch," "A Hard Day's Rut") and the home video release, a fervent following developed.

Among "Cash's" biggest champions, Innes said in a phone interview, was George Harrison, who appears as an interviewer. "George wanted it to happen," Innes said. "Out of all the Beatles, he wanted to put the suit in the cupboard and move on. There was a very touching letter he wrote to his mom and dad during the height of Beatlemania. He must have been 22 or 23. (His wife) Olivia read it at his memorial service. He said there had to be something more than all this mad fame. He was always interested to know the big one: 'Why are we here?' It's baffled the best brains of history."

Innes' first visit to Chicago was as a member of the Bonzos. He reckons it was 1968 during the hubbub of the Democratic Convention, because, he remembers "the whole place was closed for the weekend. We were sort of curfewed in a midtown Holiday Inn watching a strange trio play music and people dance to it. It was very, very bizarre."

His first Chicago Beatles fest appearance was in 1994, and his most recent was in 2001. Not for him the "bite the hand that feeds" attitude as exemplified in the classic "Saturday Night Live" sketch in which William Shatner excoriates worshipful "Star Trek" conventioneers with the now immortal words, "Get a Life." "I thought it was a lovely family kind of weekend," he said. "To turn your back on the horrible real world and to hang out with kindred spirits sitting around playing wonderful songs. I couldn't see anything wrong with it at all."

Aware that he was speaking to someone from Chicago, he did rank it "the nicest" of all the Beatle fest cities. "I'm not just saying this," he insisted. "The people are just so much more open and easy going."

The Fest, then, was the ideal venue to show "The Seventh Python." Five years in the making, the documentary is as modest as its subject, a self-described "shrinking violet" when it comes to celebrity. "It's the sort of thing that happens to me," he explained. "I just lean against something and it turns into a door and I find myself in something."

Rather than the conventional compilation of clips from Innes' various now-legendary projects, there are primarily interviews with practically the full Monty (only an unavailable Terry Gilliam and the ceased-to-be Graham Chapman are missing.) as well as various former Bonzos and Rutles. There are ample clips of Innes in recent performance ("I've suffered for my music. Now it's your turn"), or performing such signature tune as "How Sweet to Be an Idiot."

Over more than four decades, Innes has, to quote an admirer in the film, carved out "this delightful corner of the playroom" for himself. He has gleefully, to quote another, made "mischief with his own career." You don't see Eric Clapton walking out onstage with a rubber duck fixed atop his head.

"Eric did say once, 'I wish I could muck about like you guys. I'd love to come out with a stuffed parrot on my shoulder,'" Innes recalled. "I told him, 'You can't, Eric. There's posters of you in a hideous perm saying, 'Clapton is God.'"

Considering the anarchic nature of the Bonzos' music, the observed madness of Beatlemania, and the comic iconoclasm of the Pythons, Innes emerges in the film and over the phone as a regular Joe Public (from the Innes song of the same name). He said he is not one to be awed by anyone, "other than genuine admiration for the work they do." Which is not to say he does not treasure such "wonderful moments" as when he and Idle were in the company of George and Ringo, and while posing for a photograph, Harrison picked up a guitar and strummed the opening chord of "Ouch."

Innes credits his years as an art student for keeping him grounded and instilling in him what Michael Palin calls in the film "a healthy contempt for fame." "I was somebody who likes to look at things and draw. I think it helps me when I'm counterfeiting music styles," he joked. "If I see something, I like to be able to point it out to somebody else; reporting and sharing."

What Innes saw in the case of the Beatles, he said, was "the fame trip sort of killed them off in a way. The media really goes for that kind of thing, and they've been looking for something like that ever since, whether it's a grief fest for Diana or what. So, in a way the Rutles came about because something sillier needed to be done" to defuse the legend.

(Two years earlier, Lorne Michaels had gone on-air to offer John, Paul, George, and Ringo a whopping $3,000 to reunite on "Saturday Night Live." It is said that Paul was visiting John in New York, that they were watching, and considered going to the studio to collect. Innes has heard the story, and thinks it could be true. "It would certainly be John's instinct," he said).

Lennon was a Rutles fan, according to Innes. "John had a wicked sense of humor like George and could see the funny side of it," he said. "We sent him the album and asked what he thought. He sent a message back saying it was fine, but that 'Get Up and Go,' (which echoes 'Get Back') might get us into trouble from the music publishers."

What is Innes up to now? "I'm not really taking on anything, but I seem to be incredibly busy all the time," he laughed. "Busy doing nothing much." "Nothing much" includes helping a Dutch friend out with his album, going on tour with the band that was in "Rutland Weekend Television," Idle's post-Python project that launched the Rutles, and writing a "semi-autobiographical" book.

As for his legacy, the title, "The Seventh Python," begs the question: What number Beatle is Innes? He laughed, but did not want to presume an answer ("Let's see," he figured, "Stu Sutcliffe is fifth, George Martin is probably sixth....") Finally, he settled on, "Probably the third Bob Dylan."

"The Seventh Python" is not yet slated for theatrical or DVD release. "The Rutles: All You Need is Cash" is distributed on DVD by Rhino, and is available from Amazon.com.