The only currently non-living member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Graham Chapman died in 1989 from throat cancer, age 48. In 1980, he published the incredibly incorrectly named A Liar’s Autobiography Volume VI and it has been re-published three times since his death.
To paraphrase the advertising slogan for the 1960’s film Myra Breckenridge: The book that shouldn’t have been written is now the film that couldn’t be made. Of course, by “shouldn’t have been,” I mean “so soon.” By “couldn’t be,” I mean really couldn’t be — at least if it follows the book closely — and yet somehow was, and the end product comes off brilliantly.
Chapman shouldn’t have written his life story so soon because he should have had so much more of it to tell, and the things that most come through in the film are his wit and sense of humor. Oddly, what doesn’t come through is anything you don’t already know about the man if you’re any kind of Monty Python fan, but that’s all right. This film is entirely about the journey and not the destination.
It’s quite a journey because the premise of the production is probably unique. Three years before he died, Chapman recorded himself reading his autobiography, and these tapes became the guiding track for animation created by fourteen different studios, in more than that many styles.
All of the other living Pythons (except for Eric Idle), plus sixth Python Terry Gilliam and so-called “female Python” Carol Cleveland, contribute voices to the soundtrack, frequently creating dialogue with Chapman’s pre-recorded narrative. There’s also at least one celebrity voice surprise. I don’t want to give it away, but just pay attention and see if you can guess who’s giving voice to Sigmund Freud.
As I mentioned above, if you come to this film expecting to get Chapman’s life story from A to Z, you’ll be disappointed. He does hit the high points — barely — of being accepted to Emmanuel College, joining up with the Footlights club, and the early TV days with David Frost, but this is, after all, a life story told by a raging alcoholic, which brings to mind an old joke. “How can you tell if an alcoholic is lying?” “His lips are moving.”
Still, Chapman’s flights of fancy give the film itself wings, and when the animation style comes together with the story, it’s remarkable. Standouts are an early Claymation sequence with young Graham stranded in a car with his parents, constantly dissuaded from his only interest: reading; Chapman’s recounting of his college sex life with a gloriously animated 3D rollercoaster complete with very phallic car; and a mini sex-farce done POV and set in a Beverly Hills hotel room.
There’s also a tour-de-force sequence depicting Chapman’s efforts to quit drinking, beginning with Plympton-esque hand-drawn cell animation, moving into a hyper-real but cartoonish rendition of Monty Python’s One Man Wrestling Himself sketch (imminently appropriate in context) and ending with Chapman, his doctor, audience and others converted into characters in a 19th century children’s puppet theatre as a triumphant celebration of success.
Where the “Liar” part really comes into the saga is in Chapman’s dancing around his alcoholism. On the one hand, he’s very forthcoming both in the book and film, admitting to his drinking problem and his homosexuality. On the other hand, the problems he had with both are dashed off rather glibly and without real consequence — and there must have been consequences for somebody who self-admittedly drank four pints a day. That’s more than 2 1/4 liters, or nearly one and a third of the bottles that Americans know as “handles”. In a day.
The most extreme problem his character confronts in the film is a case of incessant name-dropping that develops, apparently, as a natural consequence of having lived in Los Angeles for too long. The situation and its telling, though, are hilarious.
Now available on DVD, A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman is well worth seeing for the energy and exuberance of its animation alone. That Chapman’s somewhat distorted life story still manages to be compelling and entertaining is a bonus.
You’ll definitely want the DVD version with all the extras, though. While the film tells us about the personality and the creativity, the other interviews, documentaries, and the like complete the picture and tell us about the man.