Despite Monty Python’s collective success throughout the 70s and 80s, Graham Chapman has remained the most enigmatic and least recognisable of the team. Not for him the successful moviemaking career of Terry Gilliam or the Hollywood acclaim accorded to John Cleese and Eric Idle. Even on home turf in the UK Michael Palin and Terry Jones’s output hogged the limelight.
Chapman may quite happily have accepted the title of “he who is least well known” but as this anarchic and vibrant animated documentary reveals his real life was as Technicolor and rollercoaster-y as any film could hope to dream up. The movie’s three directors, Bill Jones, Ben Timlett and Jeff Simpson, have taken Chapman’s autobiography, helpfully narrated by him before his death in 1989 (Chapman himself would concede it would have been much harder afterwards), and drafted in teams of animators.
It’s a tactic that works brilliantly. The mixture of photo-montage, line drawing, computer-generated, 2D and 3D animation helps to encapsulate a life more effectively than a single style as it reflects the haphazard, diverse and often crazy jolts that Chapman’s journey took him on. There’s a particularly energetic sketchbook sequence featuring a world war two dogfight, and towards the end a psychedelic wigout that matches the mix of celebrity mates and alcoholic binges that summed up Chapman’s later life.
The narrative is straightforward: parents, school, university, fame, struggles with fame and addiction, a bit of a sticky end, but plenty of fun along the way. Yet a doubt nags away, and it’s one borne of the thought that, for all its up and downs, this take on Chapman’s life isn’t engaging enough. Perhaps it’s too familiar; maybe it’s not unique enough. It sounds a terrible thing to say but some sections are, well, a little dull.
There are great gags however, some droll humour and it’s reassuring to notice so many of the Pythons and their cohorts supplying voices. There’s even a Sigmund Freud sequence narrated by Cameron Diaz. Bizarre. But a good thing. And hearing John Cleese’s impersonation of Sir David Frost brings forth a big smile simply because it shows such little respect for a major TV figure.
That A Liar’s Autobiography makes you want to search out all the great sketches and Monty Python films is a encouraging but also symbolic of the film’s flaws; those tiny glimpses of famous routines only whet the appetite for the real thing. However, the movie does end on a typically big (and tongue in cheek) musical number, and in showing a clip from John Cleese’s eulogy at Chapman’s funeral – hilarious, by the way – anchors the film in the reality of a talented man who made a lot of people smile, a lot.