Dr. Graham Chapman is probably best known for being a member of the legendary British comedy troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Tragically dying at the age of 48 in 1989 from throat cancer, the pipe smoking medical doctor, comic actor, and writer, Chapman lived a strange, almost dual, life, at once off-the-wall and both shy and serious — an enigma even to his Python mates. His life was a contradictory as his chosen profession; he lived fairly openly (especially for the time) as a gay man, but kept his drinking problem secreted away in the closet.
Chapman documented his life in the 1981 book A Liar’s Autobiography. Virgil Films has now released a DVD based upon the book, A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman. The animated film presents Chapman telling his life story essentially from beyond the grave. Using his voice culled from audio recordings of his book, along with the added voices of his Python comrades, A Liar’s Autobiography is a multi-media filmic collage of a story; it is, I suppose, something “completely different.” It’s not a Monty Python movie per se, nor anything like any of the series episodes, but the influences of both are there, of course.
The “cinematic memoir,” as the producers call it, documents Chapman’s life from his boyhood days, Cambridge education (and qualifying as a doctor, something he eventually knew he would never actually practice), his introduction to the legendary Cambridge Footlights and writing partner John Cleese (What is it about Footlights that creates such remarkable creative teams? Fry and Laurie fans, take note). The film also follows Chapman during his crazier years, alcoholism, and his eventual emergence from the closet as a homosexual; something that shocked even his closest associates.
The slightly (well, more than slightly) surreal movie moves along as frantically as we imagine life as a Python might, so it leaps about and does more than a few silly walks. But fortunately for us, the DVD also features as great “making of” featurette, which is as interesting as the film itself, providing context for the animated movie and Chapman’s life, relationships and creativity. I would be tempted to watch the documentary first, even before the film.
Bill Jones (son of Terry), Jeff Simpson and Ben Timlett, with help from animators at 14 studios, have ingeniously turned those tapes into a hilarious, revealing and poignant look at this creative genius and complicated man. The movie uses a range of techniques, some of them familiar to Python fans, and some new.
A Liar’s Autobiography is a great addition to the collection of any Monty Python fan, and it deepens appreciation for Chapman’s work, his comedy and his life. It is not exactly what I expected (on the other hand, I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting). And if you are anticipating this as a new, until-now undiscovered Monty Python film or televison episode, what you find might be as unexpected as the Spanish Inquisition (which does, in fact make an appearance). Is A Liar’s Autobiography true? Is it truly an autobiography, however surreally presented? Who knows, and the answer is irrelevant.
A Liar’s Autobiography is available now on DVD and Blu-ray from Virgil Films.