Brian Cohen (played by Graham Chapman) has been sentenced to death by crucifixion for his part in a kidnap plot. After a succession of apparent rescue opportunities all come to nothing, a character on a nearby cross (played by Eric Idle) attempts to cheer him up by singing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" to him. As the song progresses, many of the other crucifixion victims (140 in all, according to the script, though fewer than that are actually seen on screen) begin to dance in a very limited way and join in with the song's whistled hook. The song continues as the scene changes to a long-shot of the crosses and the credits begin to roll. An instrumental version plays over the second half of the credits.
"Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" was conceived as a parody of the style of song often featured in Disney films. It may be considered an answer song to the entire genre, but particularly to songs such as "Give a Little Whistle" from Pinocchio. Its appearance at the end of the film, when the central character seems certain to die, is deliberately ironic.
The song opens with an introductory verse (half-sung with an acoustic guitar backing on the soundtrack album and most subsequent versions, though simply spoken unaccompanied in the film itself):
Some things in life are bad,
They can really make you mad.
Other things just make you swear and curse.
When you're chewing on life's gristle,
Don't grumble, give a whistle,
And this'll help things turn out for the best, and...
This deviation from the standard rhyme scheme (with 'best' replacing the expected 'worse' to rhyme with 'curse') leads into the first appearance of the chorus, which consists of the title and a whistled tune. A second verse continues in a similar vein, and the third and fourth verses move on to discuss the situation (namely, imminent death) in which Brian now finds himself, and alludes to the Shakespearean cliché that 'all the world's a stage':
You'll see it's all a show,
Keep 'em laughing as you go.
Just remember that the last laugh is on you.
The whistled hook is an uncredited contribution from Idle's frequent collaborator Neil Innes. One occurrence in the final chorus was omitted at the insistence of the film's executive producer George Harrison, so as not to obscure a pet phrase in John Altman's orchestral arrangement.
The song appeared on the film soundtrack album, listed as "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life (All Things Dull and Ugly)". The subtitle does not appear in, or apparently have any connection to, the actual song, and is only used on the soundtrack album. Confusingly, "All Things Dull and Ugly" was also the title of an unrelated track on Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album (released only a few months later), which is a parody of the popular hymn "All Things Bright and Beautiful".
The song was also released on the B-side of the single "Brian Song", the film's opening theme (performed by Sonia Jones). It is likely that the claim made by Idle in the spoken fade-out that "this song is available in the foyer" was actually true in some cinemas.
The song touched a chord with the British trait of stoicism and the 'stiff upper lip' in the face of disaster, and became immensely popular. When the destroyer HMS Sheffield was struck by an Exocet cruise missile on May 4 1982 in the Falklands War, her crew sang it while waiting to be rescued from their sinking ship, as did the crew of HMS Coventry.
When Graham Chapman died in 1989, the five remaining members of Monty Python reunited at his funeral to sing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" after John Cleese's eulogy. In 2005, a survey by Music Choice showed that it was the third most popular song Britons would like played at their funerals.
The single (which was backed with two tracks from Contractual Obligation, "I Bet You They Won't Play This Song on the Radio" and "I'm So Worried") also doubled up as promotion for the recently-released compilation Monty Python Sings. (The original pressing also featured a German language version of "The Lumberjack Song", though this was quickly withdrawn and is now a collector's item.) The single reached the top ten in October and prompted a deliberately chaotic performance by Idle on Top of the Pops. Despite some perhaps over-enthusiastic predictions, it did not manage to bring an end to Bryan Adams' unprecedented run at the top of the UK Singles Chart with "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You", instead peaking at number 3. Following this attention, the song became more popular than ever. Two cover versions, by Tenor Fly (incorporating the piano riff from Nina Simone's "My Baby Just Cares for Me"), and the cast of Coronation Street, both reached the charts in 1995.
Isabell Werth of Germany used the song as part her winning routine with her horse Gigolo at the individual dressage equestrian event at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta (though the events were held east of Atlanta in Conyers) to win the event gold over Anky van Grunsven of the Netherlands.
In 1997, the song was recorded by Art Garfunkel and included in the soundtrack of James L. Brooks' film As Good as It Gets. Jack Nicholson sings the song fleetingly in the film itself. Garfunkel's version replaced the slightly "dirty" lyric "Life's a piece of shit" with the more family-friendly "Life's a counterfeit" ("Life is hit or miss" has also replaced the lyric as with wedding bands and live radio). It was also performed by Bruce Cockburn and released on his 1990 Live CD.
In late 2001 it was featured in the end credits of part two of The Making of Walking With Beasts to some WWB creatures featuring in a circus (an ape-man ringmaster sticking his head in the jaws of a sabre-toothed cat whilst early monkeys acrobat with a brontotherium up above). It was also recorded by the Brobdingnagian Bards for the CD A Faire to Remember.
Preston North End Football Club sing an adaptation to Burnley Football Club, with the words "Always look on the Turf Moor", while fans of Cardiff City Football Club sing "Always shit on the English side of the Bridge" to visiting English supporters. The lyrics "Always look on the runway for ice" are sometimes sung by supporters of teams playing against Manchester United.
The band Iron Maiden often have a recording of the "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" song played right after they end their performance, as the lights come up and the fans begin to leave.
The song appears twice in the Broadway musical Spamalot, based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail; once in Act II and again during the curtain call. It is the only Monty Python song in the musical not taken from the original movie, with the exception of the "Finland" song; other songs were either from Holy Grail or were new creations.
The song's lyrical theme can be regarded as a modern-day version of the stereotypical British 'stiff upper lip' attitude, and this, combined with the song's high familiarity, had led to it often being jokingly described as Britain's 'alternative national anthem'.
The Spamalot rendition of the song was also performed by the Broadway cast in the 2006 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
In the year of 1992 the German power metal band, Heavens gate, recorded a metal version of Monty Python's "Always look on the bright Side of life" in the Single "Don't Bring Me Down".
In April, 2007, over 4,000 people gathered in Trafalgar Square in London, in a successful attempt to create a new official Guinness world record for the largest number of people playing simultaneously in a coconut orchestra. (i.e. banging coconut shells together in time to the music.) The song used for the record attempt was "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life". A video of the event can be seen on youtube.
In the year of 2008, during the 86th minute of the Italy - Netherlands game of Euro 2008, the Netherlands fans started singing "Always look on the Bright Side of Life" to the Italy fans (in English), who were trailing unexpectedly 3-0.