Review: Billy T: Te Movie
Reviewed by Helen Martin
Documentary NZ 2011 prods Tom Parkinson, Robert Boyd-Bell co-prod Toby Parkinson dir/co-writer Ian Mune co-writer Phil Gifford ed Margot Francis camera Waka Attewell sound Dick Reade, Tom Miskin composer Bernie Allen footage researcher Angela Boyd 90 minutes
Both times I saw Billy T: Te Movie the audience stayed on for the credits, savouring every last drop, delighted when the wait was rewarded with one last and very funny skit. It’s easy to see the reason for the wait. The subject matter of Billy T: Te Movie, described by co-producer Toby Parkinson as comedian Billy T James’s “career and his comedy as a reflection of the cultural shifts happening in the country” (Onfilm, August, 2011) is fascinating in itself. Add to that superb crafting in the storytelling, with image and sound a perfectly matched correlative to the narrative and spirit of each sequence, and you have a captivating whole that is so much more than the sum of its parts.
From the explosive opening, one of the standout qualities of the film is its energy, driven by a pumping soundtrack which exuberantly reinforces the many upbeat times in Billy’s life, most notably when he’s on stage. This is balanced by a quieter energy in the more contemplative moments, when sadness replaces joy. Epitomising this, the arresting scene where Billy’s friends and colleagues, each in a single close-up, wordlessly reflect on his early death, is masterful in its understatement and eloquence.
Exhaustive research has turned up a wealth of visuals, all digitally re-mastered, producing a rich haul of relevant and sometimes surprising images – news footage of the 1950s drift of rural Maori to the cities (“Te great migration”), of the 1975 Maori Land March, and, amazingly, archival footage of Billy’s birth parents, Sally and Jimmy Smith (“Te whanau tale”). We see in action the British stand-up comedians Billy learned from on his early European tour with the Maori Volcanics, and the early audiences who rolled in the aisles at his first stand-up gigs.
While much of Billy’s performance footage has been lost, there’s enough of it to anchor the narrative, to keep it moving and to showcase the range of his work, good and bad. Convincing re-enactments are cut seamlessly into the flow, as are dozens of stills, again the result of painstaking research. Montage is also used to powerful effect, as are the quirky connecting graphics which act as signposts while echoing Billy’s artistic flair.
And then there are the interviews, where a parade of family, friends and colleagues talk about Billy, his talents, his flaws. You expect to hear from grateful fellow-comedians and musicians, family, producers and managers but, adding flavour to the pot, you also get to meet people you couldn’t possibly have known about: mates from school and from the Maori hostel where he stayed when he first moved to the city; a man Billy supported as a teenager as he waited, like Billy, for a life-saving heart transplant; the couple who drove baby Billy in their meat truck, in 1949, to be handed over to the relative who was to bring him up. Notably absent is Billy’s wife Lynn, who appears in a shot of their wedding, then vanishes like a wraith. That part of the story is not told – perhaps it needs a documentary of its own.
It’s a clever balancing act, with contemplation of the perplexing issues – Billy by and large blanked out his Maori heritage, as a workaholic he couldn’t see meaning in life unless he was performing, many never knew the man behind the comedian – threaded into the texture of the narrative without damaging the overall mood of celebration and love for the man who remains the funniest comedian this country has produced.