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From Tom Waits to The Beatles: 8 songs Terry Gilliam couldn't live without

Terry Gilliam was the only American of the famous Monty Python comedy troupe. He was responsible for creating the cartoon animation for their Flying Circus, and their feature films such as The Holy Grail and The Life of Brian. Gilliam eventually became a full-time cast member of Python and got acting roles in the troupe’s productions.

Gilliam developed the animations of the massive foot stomping cartoon characters in between scenes that many have come to associate Monty Python with. His leading asset has always been his imagination, and everything that he does celebrates that one way or another. 

By the early 1980s, Monty Python was coming to a close, culminating in their last two films, Life of Brian and Meaning of Life. Gilliam went on to shoot and direct films that dealt with themes concerning the imagination. Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) are some of his first solo endeavours. 

One of Gilliam’s career-defining films he made later on, which some might find surprising to know that Gilliam directed, is his 2009’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, starring Heath Ledger. During the movie’s filming, Ledger passed away, forcing Gilliam to question whether he wanted to throw in the towel. But he didn’t and has, instead, continued to create impressive work. Two years after that, he would be rewarded with a reflective moment that few artists can achieve.

In 2011, Gilliam joined Kirsty Young on BBC’s Desert Island Discs, to discuss the eight songs that he could not live without. The show is a British institution and sees the great and the good from across society take their place in the hot seat and pick out the songs they’d take with them if they were stranded on an inescapable desert island. “It’s one of those moments when you’re going through life thinking it’s all sweet and lovely, and you’re clean and brushed, then suddenly you’re dragged down a dark alley, and it’s ‘Heartbreak Hotel’,” Gilligan said about hearing the Elvis Presley song for the first time — his first desert island disc.

“I suppose I had the most freedom of anyone in the group,” Gilliam recalled about his involvement in Monty Python. He continued to say, “what I was doing was so different from anyone else in the group.” Part of what made Monty Python so original and innovative in the way they did comedy, was that no one had done a mainstream surreal format before.

They had determined early on that they weren’t going to use punchlines in the traditional sense of telling jokes. It would freely flow from one segment into the next; if they needed a bridge between one scene into the next, then Gilliam’s job was to create his unique and very surreal cartoon animation, which worked on glueing the whole thing together under one strange umbrella.

“My animations gave it a different level of colouring,” Gilliam told Young. Adding, “Partly, for the non-verbal people to enjoy.” Young asked Gilliam about when fellow Python member Michael Palin said that Gilliam exists “in opposition to the world.” It’s a curious sentiment but one that Gilliam agrees with: “I think that’s right. I’ve always been reactive; I don’t know what I want,” Gilliam responded before adding, “but I do know what’s wrong.”

Young and Gilliam’s conversation takes them to his years behind the scenes of the Python troupe; Gilliam was not quite as verbose and quick-witted as the others were while they lacked his vision. But back to the music: “We’re going back to the beginning now,” reflects the director, “being a kid and going to the movies and watching Walt Disney’s Pinocchio, this is ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’,” Gilliam chooses the Cliff Edwards track as his second choice. Gilliam’s childhood has always been centred around creation; his father was a carpenter: “I can build things — just like Jesus and Joseph — Pinocchio and Gepetto — yeah that’s how it works,” then Gilliam quips, “my mother is a virgin too, just so you know.”

“It is contrast, and it isn’t contrast — it is, again, America. It’s Tom Waits, and I just think he is the greatest musical poet in America, and it’s a song called, ‘Alice’,” Gillian comments about his third choice. This Tom Waits song appeared on his album, which he wrote for the play called Alice, directed by Robert Wilson and is a stark rmeinder of his unwavering talent.

As with many inclusions, the next choice had a poignant message attached to it: “The Beatles, of course, have to come in, as they were so much an important part of my life, particularly George Harrison with Handmade Films. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for George. I always said he wouldn’t be where he was had I not been buying all of his records. So I thought we ought to do ‘Taxman’.”

Harrison always thought that the spirit of The Beatles went into Monty Python which is partly why he created Handmade Films to help the Python crew produce their films. The Beatles broke up when Monty Python started, “I think there’s some element of truth to that,” Gilliam said in regards to the Fab Four’s spirit passing into the Python crew.

For Gilliam’s book choice, he would bring with him to the desert island the most manic of tomes — the dictionary. While his choice of luxury item is a mirror so “I can see who I’m talking to,” Gilliam says. It concludes one of the more frank, honest and funny Desert Island Discs episodes we’ve heard in a while, and you can catch it all below.

Terry Gilliam’s 8 favourite songs

  • Elvis Presley – ‘Heartbreak Hotel’
  • Cliff Edwards – ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ 
  • Tom Waits – ‘Alice’
  • Parno Graszt – ‘Odi Phenel Cino Savo/Azt Mondja A Kisfiam’
  • The Beatles – ‘Taxman’
  • Van Dyke Parks – ‘Opportunity For Two’
  • Richard Strauss – ‘Ein Heldenleben – Final Movement’
  • Sergey Rachmaninov – ‘The Isle Of The Dead’