A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman
UK (2013) Dir. Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson & Ben Timlett
And now for something completely different.
Which is in fact an extremely apropos way to open this review rather than lazily making a twee Monty Python reference since this film is likely to disappoint anyone who is expecting a Python-esque outing from this esoteric and occasionally blunt adaptation of the late Graham Chapman’s fictional autobiography.
I say “fictional”, it does contain plenty of truths some of which have been tampered with to make them a tad more entertaining for us while the darker chapters of Chapman’s life are treated with a more serious and confrontational manner changing the tone from irreverent comedy to stark and unapologetic brutal candour.
Told mostly via the medium of animation the narrator is Chapman himself – via his own audio book version from 1986 – while his fellow Pythons, sans Eric Idle, provide other voices along with a few celebrity helpers, the most notable being Stephen Fry and Cameron Diaz as Sigmund Freud! Fourteen different animation companies were recruited to produce a segment each, resulting in a somewhat discordant clash of styles which confoundedly works very will within the diegesis of Chapman’s already offbeat narrative.
From South Park-esque rudimentary style animation to detailed CGI with abstract sketches and cut-out figures sandwiched in between, there is, as the cliché goes, something for everyone although with animation this also means that some of the more experimental styles won’t please those with more conservative tastes. Yet such is the remarkable synergy between the individual art styles and the subject at hand, it is as if the animators were on the same wavelength as Chapman, despite both part being produced some 25 years apart.
The film is book ended by a recounting of Chapman’s failing to remember his lines during a sketch while performing a Python show in New York. We see this iteration of Chapman collapse from the stress and horror of this memory lapse before being whisked away by a shaft of light into a nearby space craft. The life story then begins from the beginning in true slapdash fashion with flagrant mistruths, mis-directions and other silliness typical of its author.
Nothing major in his personal life is avoided, although the Python experience is downplayed to almost being a footnote than a major life moment, but with Chapman being a rather self-effacing chap the discomfort of revealing all about himself shine through even through this exaggerated presentation. He is, for instance, very open about his homo-sexuality, admitting to thinking of men while sleeping with women before deciding he would be a “butch” gay.
All of these instances, from his childhood – complete with his trademark pipe as a baby – to his university education and his first big break along with John Cleese as a writer for The Frost Report, are recalled with a sardonic fondness, as if Chapman was someone who took all of these life adventures and eventual successes in his stride without realising the enormity of the impact and difference they would make to his life.
This changes when his post-Python life sees him living in Los Angeles and adopting the apparently requisite party animal role. Already known for needing a drink or ten when working with Python, Chapman was now a bona fide alcoholic and in the one place where the supplies never dry up, we find our subject hitting a nadir in his health and in life. The sense of self-loathing that permeates through one particular scene is matched by the stark animation consisting of occasional Munch-esque portraits of Chapman in between the point of view observations depicting the progressive descent into a claustrophobic physical and mental abyss.
In support of this the next scene lampoons the famous wrestling sketch in which Chapman wrestles himself – but instead of the funny prat falls and self-grappling, the animated Chapman rips his body to bits and throws the limbs to the braying audience. Only when his head is left does a doctor appear to tell him he needs help. Not the most subtle metaphor but an effective one and a sublime use of a Python sketch to boot.
The brevity of the run time, just 82 minutes, doesn’t allow for much in-depth analysis but we get a good enough grasp of Chapman being a man who didn’t believe he necessarily fit in but carried on regardless. For some this would lead to many a crisis of confidence and severe psychological episodes, all of which Chapman experienced later in life, but in his prime he seemed to stroll through his days with a que sera sera attitude.
As we know Chapman shuffled off his mortal coil and joined the choir invisible in 1989 aged 48, having beaten the booze but defeated by throat cancer. He publicly came out, spoke openly about his alcoholism and made the world laugh. However like many great comedy writers and performers he seemed unable to laugh with us. To that end this film should serve as a blunt warning to people who need love, attention or are struggling with dependency issues to get help.
Many Python fans have expressed disappointment in this film, as if they were expecting another Python film. That is, of course, absurd. It is a tad erroneous to suggest that Python was greater than the sum of its parts, since most of the members went on to successful solo careers afterwards – except sadly Chapman, but that doesn’t mean he should be beholden to its legacy for his own story. If anything the feel of this narrative is a more akin to Spike Milligan’s comic autobiographies, which in itself is quite a lofty measuring stick to be put up against.
Absolutely an acquired taste, A Liar’s Autobiography is a witty, funny, sad, revealing and very honest look at the eventful if tragically cut short life of a comedy great. It is visually arresting as it is anarchic but then again one suspects Graham Chapman wouldn’t have it any other way. Honest.