A Liar's Autobiography – The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman
Directed by Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson and Ben Timlett
Monty Python are often called the Beatles of comedy, but the two groups have more in common than their tremendous legacies. With the premature death of one member (Graham Chapman, for the Pythons), any chances of legitimate reunions were gone, leaving fans always hungering for something that might recapture the past.
A Liar's Autobiography — The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman isn't an official Monty Python reunion, but it certainly comes close. Before his death from cancer in 1989, Chapman had published his memoirs and, in a time before audio books were commonplace, recorded himself reading it at a friend's studio.
Directors Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson and Ben Timlett, working with more than a dozen animation companies, have taken that recording and brought Chapman back to life. And in 3D, no less.
Fellow Pythons lend their voices: John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and Michael Palin all appear as themselves, alongside Chapman, and more crucially, give extra touches of life to the animated world around them. Eric Idle, usually the group cheerleader, conspicuously sits out.
2009's exhaustive Monty Python: Almost the Truth (Lawyers Cut) covered the Python's story, however, and Idle's absence works in tilting the focus away from the group and more towards Chapman's rich backstory. An open homosexual, but a closeted alcoholic —not to mention, a star — Chapman's life wove complexly in between being private and public. It's all brought to the forefront here in ways that are touching and occasionally provocative.
A Liar's Autobiography opens with Gilliam-inspired cut-outs of the actual Pythons mid-performance, but only to set the stage for the wide variety of animation styles used throughout the film. The segmentation of the story into different styles (by way of different production companies) works less often than one would hope. It livens the story to see, for example, the Pythons as monkeys, but when the technique doesn't work, it also serves as a reminder of why animation is being resorted to.
The film hits its stride as the story digs deeper into Chapman's life. The pain and chaos of his struggle with alcoholism are captured in cacophonous, abstract drawings in a way that actors and dialogue couldn't match. In contrast, but just as poignant, is Chapman's relationship with partner David Sherlock, wherein the two become literally transcendent as their love grows. These standout moments go further than biopics usually do, and certainly further than most mainstream animated features, but, frustratingly, they are too fleeting.
Still, A Liar's Autobiography does well in complementing the existing Python lore and could, perhaps for new audiences, stand as a more personal entry point into their expansive legacy. But it's with rare moments, such as when Chapman and John Cleese converse back and forth on screen for the first time in too long, that the film delivers a small amount of greatness for everyone.
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