Without a doubt, New Zealand’s most memorable comedian, the legendary Billy T James, is brought to life in 21st century New Zealand by “Billy T: Te Movie”. Drawing on archive footage from old stand up routines, TV interviews and present day interviews, the documentary does enough to solidify the legacy of the man behind the black singlet and yellow towel.
William James Te Wehi Taitoko (to give him his birth name) was born to a Scottish mother and Maori father. School teachers and friends characterise Billy as a shy person who was also very gentle. A multitude of people knew Billy – it seems unreal that all these people can be connected simply by knowing a single person.
The film documents the time which Billy spent with the Volcanics band, his night club comedy gigs, the first big breaks which got him into television; followed by the explosion into stardom.
Billy T James was an entertainer, a musician, a comedian, a singer, an actor, a writer and an artist. Director Ian Mune does a sleek job; inside each interview is warmth so real it feels akin to a 20th century Cinderella story where everything is turning out to be alright. Michael Mikaere, who is Billy’s brother, speaks affectionately of the time he and Billy learned that they were related. All of a sudden, everything turns into hugs and smiles. Steve Wrigley, a well regarded comedian in New Zealand, speaks highly of the man. So too does Jim Moriarty, an actor and theatre director.
That elephant in the room remains though. Some former colleagues recall two weaknesses which repeatedly held James back. A poor diet and an incredibly trusting nature. One choice poised Billy for a heart attack (which required a quadruple bypass), while the other left him in a financially dire situation. Matt Elliot, author of the biography ‘Billy T’ writes that all the man ever wanted to do, was make people laugh. It left me wondering what could have happened had his financial and physical heath been more stable. Perhaps a lot more silly Billy, funny ha-ha, entertainment … but stargazing is only possible when the stars still light up the television screens.
What wasn’t well done though, was the sudden acceleration of events when things began getting desperate. Instead of spending time exploring the root cause of what went wrong, it seemed more like a “well it happened” attitude prevailed. Likewise, Billy’s wife Lynn and his daughter Cherie aren’t discussed very much. The reasons for this remain unclear. Both women are certainly the most important people in the entertainer’s life. Some element of Billy’s natural character went unanswered. Like his famous laugh. Was it a cultural caricature or was that just how the fellow laughed? After one screening of the film quite a few scenes really just got thrown together. One cut took us from high school to the Volcanics touring. Wow!
In an air of slightly awkward documentary filmmaking, and a lack of complete coverage, the on-stage charm of Billy T James and the constant warmth radiated by those inspired by him,the film manages a pass mark, albeit only just.