Review: A Liar’s Autobiography – The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman

A bizarre animated documentary of Graham Chapman, a.k.a. the Monty Python member who died. 

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Those searching for a legitimate biopic or documentary of Monty Python should look elsewhere. Besides, aren’t there already several definitive documentaries of Monty Python in the world? I would say that the BBC’s nearly-8-hour 2009 documentary series Monty Python: Almost the Truth  – The Lawyer’s Cut pretty much offered the final word on the matter. The only thing missing from Almost the Truth was input from Python member Graham Chapman, who died of throat cancer in 1989, and whom you may know as the guy who played King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Brian in Life of Brian (1979).

I suppose to fill out the roster from all the documentaries produced since his death, a trio of animation directors (Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson, and Ben Timlett) decided to devote an entire film to the life of Graham Chapman. Although this film is less about regular documentary recounting of chronological events in Chapman’s life, and more a dizzying animated phantasmagoria about Graham’s own general character. Each era of Chapman’s life is made by a different animation team, and it is narrated by Chapman himself, using old recordings taken from the audio version of his own written autobiography, which he co-penned in 1980 with his longtime boyfriend David Sherlock.

The general thrust of the film may frustrate those who are not already intimately familiar with the ins and outs of Monty Python history. I happen to be something of a rabid Monty Python buff, having fallen down their particular rabbit hole at age 12, so I could follow a lot of the film’s wonky chronology. I knew already, for instance, that Chapman was openly gay, but secretly an alcoholic. I knew how and when Monty Python formed. I knew about his friendship with John Cleese, and the magical summer in Ibiza where he met David. For the uninitiated, however, these events are only kind of glossed over. They are intentionally inexplicit. Indeed, any talk of the actual production and writing of any of the Monty Python material is intentionally eschewed, save one wince-inducing story about how Chapman, during a live performance of The Oscar Wilde Sketch, was so drunk he forgot all his lines.

Instead, the film gives a kind of swirling abstract collage of Chapman’s upbringing, sexual awakening, and eventual alcoholism. This is funny and entertaining, and hearing Chapman’s own wry voice describing some of the more amusingly shameful moments of his life is a delight to anyone even remotely familiar with the Python story. Some of the sharper eyes will recognize David Frost, Marty Feldman, and other ancillary Python members. The remaining Pythons all appear to give guest voices, sometimes as themselves, and sometimes as other people in Graham’s life. Except for Eric Idle. In his place is an odd (and appreciated) cameo from Cameron Diaz as Sigmund Freud.

The ultimate philosophy of Chapman’s life, the filmmakers seem to have found, was his philosophy of benevolent sexual hedonism. Most of this film is devoted to Chapman’s excesses in drink and sex, all hidden behind his erudite pipe, doctor’s knowhow, and quiet demeanor. In actuality, Chapman catted around incessantly, and eventually came to the conclusion that, well, sex is here for fun, and perhaps should be indulged in. In the film’s central scene, he poses as Paul the Apostle, and writes his own addendum to the New Testament, pointing out that the organized moralizing about sexual matters is wrong-headed. Eventually, and for his own good, he came to opposite conclusions about his drinking. He reveals that he would finish quarts of gin in a single day.

This film is an ambitious footnote on the Python canon. I predict that Python fans will react to it more strongly than not, seeing as it banks on a lot of subtle in-jokes that are never explained. But there’s an integrity to that. I suppose, 40 years after the show’s run, many of these jokes don’t need to be reiterated for nostalgic reasons. Is so doing, they do Graham a great respect.