Billy T : Te Movie
Cast: Billy T James, a wealth of mates and colleagues
Director: Ian Mune
"His mark on comedy is like a pen mark on a shirt - by a Vivid pen - it's indelible."
So a doco about the irrepressible and much loved Kiwi comic icon Billy T James finally hits the cinema (just before the TV ONE Sunday Theatre about Billy screens - find out more about that here ).
Te Movie is more about Billy T's life and draws inevitable parallels with Leanne Pooley's Topp Twins Untouchable Girls in terms of how it's put together.
Using archive performance footage, past interviews and current day recollections and reconstructions from colleagues, friends but no immediate family, this piece by Ian Mune is a sensitive, relatively rounded portrait of the man who clearly set the standard for Kiwi comedy (and whose groundbreaking talent and natural showmanship have yet to be matched from what I can tell.)
I should hold up my hands here and confess that I'd never been exposed to Billy T before as it's from before my time in NZ and so while that gives me a better perspective on the film making, it possibly would have disadvantaged me on what Billy T brought to the 80s Kiwi world.
Thankfully, Ian Mune uses footage of him truly rocking the house and reducing everyone to laughter to show what a talent he was - and what a stellar performer he was once he overcame his initial shyness and found his stride in the Maori Volcanics group.
He's also wisely chosen to adopt a somewhat matey approach to interviewing friends and colleagues of Billy T - a trio of bros is interviewed in a field in Auckland, quite a few other mates are interviewed near a cowshed - there's a very uniquely Kiwi and casual approach to putting together this film. Contributions also come from long term Billy T cohort Peter Rowley as you'd expect.
But it's telling that there's no real comment - other than archival footage - from immediate family and that's the one real hole and glaring omission which truly stops this from feeling like a rounded and full portrait of the man who seems to have crossed Maori and Pakeha divides and trailblazed the way for comedy on television and the stage. However, you do get a feel for a man who was a musician, a singer and comedy performer.
As for the Billy T who emerges from this doco, well, what can I say? Clearly this guy had some real talent, a drive to succeed and a selflessness which led him to overworking and eventual ill health - you'll be agog at how he bounds around the stage after having had a heart transplant and at the same time, you'll feel a real sense of sadness that he never went onto more. There's one moment where Mune gets everyone to reflect on Billy's passing and it's the only real slightly creaky moment within the film - sure, I can understand his intentions, but it's a little heavy handed and feels somewhat intrusive. Though, that said, I understand a lot of those involved with Billy never got the closure they needed after his sad early demise so perhaps this goes some way to providing some kind of relief.
Ultimately, because of the lack of immediate family, Billy T: Te Movie falls just short of greatness; don't get me wrong - Ian Mune's pieced together a warmly fitting tribute to the man who made such a difference to entertainment and Maori/ Pakeha relations.
And quite frankly, decades on, Billy T still has what it takes to reduce audiences to laughter - no matter how old or young they are in this charming doco which will have you giggling like Billy T when the lights go up.