Three years before his death, Graham Chapman took to a studio to record excerpts from his book, A Liar’s Autobiography. Terry Jones’s son Bill, Jeff Simpson and Ben Timlett have taken these recordings and created an animated film around them.
There is a belief that any of the original Monty Python boys find success in their present ventures through their association with their former glory. In fairness, this is probably true. The sad truth is, since Graham Chapman died in 1989, he has not been the recipient of such reflected glory. It seems that Bill Jones and his fellow directors wanted to correct this and make a documentary about Chapman, but on discovery of the recordings of Chapman reading from his book A Liar’s Autobiography, the film went in a different direction.
The film is made up of animated segments acted and narrated by Chapman himself and the rest of the Monty Python boys. There is something rather poignant about hearing Chapman’s voice again in a new film, and fans will definitely take great pleasure in the surviving members’ voice work, including Terry Jones as Graham’s mother, and the Monty Python songs and footage used in the film.
The story starts off well, even though we know that not all of this story is true, there is enjoyment to be had at the silly narration and sketches presented on screen. There are parts of the story that feel painfully honest, including Chapman’s recovery from alcoholism, while others are treated with a degree of world-weariness, such as Chapman’s homosexuality. The trouble is that Chapman did not record the book in it’s entirety, so when his narration begins to peter out, the story loses any cohesion that it had. The space is made up with clips from interviews and Monty Python sketches, but somehow this only serves to loosen the threads that tie the film together, rather than tighten them. There is a difference between silly, surreal and incoherence and sadly, the film suffers from the latter.
There at 17 different styles of animation throughout the film; some sophisticated and beautiful, others not. Some of them work incredibly well including the stage segment and the gorgeously realised space sequence, but others, and the jumps between styles are jarring. One can’t help but wonder whether the film would have benefitted from a less frenetic journey through the world of animation and a coherent visual style.
In all, it seems that A Liar’s Autobiography – The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman, as well as having one of the longest titles at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, really is a film for the fans. It is obvious that this was a labour of love for Jones, Timlett and Simpson – their love of their film and its subject shine through – but the film ends up being a bit of a mess.
That said, it is hard to stay too angry with directors who gave out gin and tonics to the audience at a delayed press screening by way of apology…