A Liar’s Autobiography review (DVD)

A Liar’s Autobiography – subtitled The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman – is a true curio, a dramatised biopic narrated from beyond the grave by its sadly departed subject, Graham Chapman of Monty Python’s Flying Circus fame. On paper this should be fascinating. Chapman was an interesting man and he lived through interesting times. His life should present significant opportunities to look at issues of class, celebrity, addiction and sexuality. Professionally he was a member of perhaps the most famous and successful British comedy troupe of the postwar era. In his personal like Chapman was homosexual and came out at a time when the British establishment still operated a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. He also  struggled with alcoholism and was conflicted about his celebrity and success. There should be plenty of meat to sink one’s teeth into in his story.

The film is based on Chapman’s unreliable memoir published in 1980, 9 years before his death at age 48 from cancer. Unusually Chapman’s memoir was credited to five authors, including Chapman’s longtime partner David Sherlock, and Douglas Adams (although Adams entire contribution was a single sketch). Before his death Chapman recorded a reading the book and this allows the filmmakers to use animation to present him as the narrator of his story. 14 different animation studios were used to present chapters of his life in contrasting styles. There are also vocal contributions from fellow Python’s John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, and Terry Gilliam (although Gilliam is not involved in any of the animation, and the animators choose to avoid Gilliam’s signature cut and paste style). Eric Idle was not involved due to scheduling issues.

While this sounds fascinating, the resulting film is an incredibly frustrating watch. With a brief 85 minute running time the narrative is selective and the picture feels like a series of vignettes. The radical shifts in animation style only make the story feel even more fragmented and random. That it isn’t particularly funny is not a valid criticism, the film isn’t really trying to be, but that it fails to get under the skin of its subject is. It is easy to underestimate just how much personal integrity and heroism it must have taken for Chapman to publicly come out in the late 1960s. Unlike many closeted comedians of the time, Chapman was not ‘camp’ either publicly or in his personal like. His fellow Python’s had no idea he was gay until he told them. He could have quite easily kept his sexuality quiet but instead became vocal in support of LGBT rights. The film presents his sex life with a degree of frankness, but doesn’t really engage with wider issues of which Chapman made himself a part.

The film also fails to deal with his alcoholism in any depth. It is presented, but there is no real analysis of its causes beyond some archive footage of Chapman in interview referring to vague feelings of insecurity. It is tempting to link his drinking to the pressures of fame and success, but it is clear that Chapman was drinking to excess long before he achieved any measure of fame at all.

The film is choppy and unfocused, skipping over chunks of Chapman’s life. We never find out much about how the Python’s met and we see nothing of their working process. Where you to approach this film with no prior knowledge of the man, you will glean nothing about his importance to Monty Python except that he co-wrote the parrot sketch.

This film is clearly a labour of love, and I dearly wish it were better but Graham Chapman deserves more.

EXTRAS None• Review courtesy of Chris & Phil Present

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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