Premiering tonight, November 2nd at 10pm ET on Epix, “A Liar’s Autobiography – The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman” is an animated version of the late Monty Python member Graham Chapman’s semi-fictionalized memoirs. It’s not a Monty Python film, though it was made with the participation of John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, with an audio recording Chapman made three years before his death at the age of 48 providing the main narration. Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson and Ben Timlett directed the feature, which mingles the stylistically varied work of over a dozen different animation studios.
“A Liar’s Autobiography” is strictly a Python B-side — combining Chapman’s deliberately fuzzy storytelling with an even looser structure, the film demands a pre-existing familiarity with the troupe’s work and with Chapman’s life, including his homosexuality and his alcoholism. The animation tends to the surreal, the connective tissue between segments recalling some of the segues in “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Where it works best is when a sense of the truth of things shines through the exaggeration and strange imagery. Here are five highlights from the film in which that happens:
Dreams of Inadequacy
As a young boy longing for holidays in Nice and getting instead getting the rainy town of Scarborough, Chapman deals with a mother trying to foist sandwich spread on him and a father who doesn’t like how much he reads. “You can’t get through to him when he’s got a book in his hand,” the man says, insisting instead they turn their attention to the view — “on a very clear day, you can’t quite see Denmark!” Chapman escapes into a book-inspired daydream in which he’s part of wartime flight crew, except that even in this vision he’s the unnecessary one who can’t fit in, and he ultimately walks off to a hidden library in another part of the vessel to, once again, seek solace in books.
Getting Drunk With the Queen Mum
In March of 1964, while studying medicine at Cambridge, Chapman notes that he was invited to tea with the Queen mother, who was there to tour the new chemistry and physiology block that had just been opened. While it seems dubious that the royal actually pulled out a flask of gin to spice up what she and the young student were drinking, she offers him advice about whether he should take up an offer to go to New Zealand with the Cambridge Circus revue, which would take him away from his studies for six months. “You really must see New Zealand, it’s a very beautiful place!” says the animated queen before passing out on the table, sending Chapman off to a career in comedy.
“Three Days of Unpleasantness”
Having decided to get sober after drinking threatened his health, Chapman’s sufferings through detox and the DTs are displayed in a beautiful, nightmarish style of animation that looks to have been carved out in thick brushstrokes of oil paint. Mainly seen through his point of view, the sequence involves hallucinations of the bedside lamp snapping at him, sunlight as a searing force and insects crawling over his trembling arms while his partner David Sherlock checks in solicitously trying to get him to eat something — clopping up as a “Holy Grail” knight, complete with coconut shells.
Chapman Comes Out To His Parents
Chapman was one of the earliest celebrities to be open about and to discuss his sexuality in a public forum. The film uses a sequence in which he appears in actual archival footage on TV talk show “Friday Night, Saturday Morning” to talk about his thoughts on sex (that it’s “harmless cheap fun,” provided the parties involved as clean and safe) and being gay. His (animated) mother, watching at home, bursts into tears and engages her son in a conversation through the screen in which she insists this news is going to kill his father. His father then comes in, and leans toward the TV to tell Chapman fondly that he should talk about these things as much as he wants, and that it’s okay by him — his mother “just doesn’t understand these things.”
John Cleese’s Funeral Speech
In another of the instances of archival footage being folded into the animation, Cleese’s famous eulogy at Chapman’s funeral, in which he refused to allow his friend and collaborator to be commemorated with only the maudlin: “I guess that we’re all thinking how sad it is that a man of such talent, of such capability for kindness, of such unusual intelligence, should now so suddenly be spirited away at the age of only 48, before he’d achieved many of the things of which he was capable, and before he’d had enough fun. Well, I feel that I should say: nonsense. Good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard, I hope he fries. And the reason I feel I should say this is he would never forgive me if I didn’t, if I threw away this glorious opportunity to shock you all on his behalf. Anything for him, but mindless good taste.”