Director: Murray Grigor
Written by: Billy Connolly, Murray Grigor, Patrick Higson
Producers: Murray Grigor, Patrick Higson
Starring: Billy Connolly
Year: 1976
Country: UK
BBFC Certification: 12
Duration: 77 mins

Big Banana Feet, Murray Grigor’s documentary of Billy Connolly’s 1975 tour of Northern Ireland, contains a lot of references to the military and the discrepancy between the glamorous lifestyle depicted in recruitment materials and the far less salubrious reality. Given the situation in Northern Ireland at the time the film was made, such references are to be expected but they also become an apt metaphor for the life of a popular stand up comedian. Away from his wife and children, following up late nights and long performances with early morning interviews, and repressing a degree of fear for his life, the affable Connolly can at times be seen struggling to maintain his relentless wit and charm off stage. There’s a lengthy shot, my favourite moment in the whole film, in which Connolly is alone in his dressing room before a performance. He opens a beer bottle by slamming the lid against the corner of a table and then sits quietly smoking. It’s a moment of peace amidst a hectic schedule but you can tell that Connolly can only turn off momentarily and not completely. At the end of the gig, a projectile lands at his feet on the stage and Connolly picks it up. It is a rose. He comments on the lovely gesture before miming the flower blowing up in his face. It’s a remarkable moment of improvisation that highlights the fact that the possibility of such a thing happening for real has never left Connolly’s mind, even if he has forced himself to not think about it.

Grigor’s film was inspired by D.A. Pennebaker’s seminal Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back. While Big Banana Feet can’t quite match the excitement of witnessing the furore surrounding Dylan, Connolly is arguably better company. Dylan’s arrogance and casual humiliation of journalists is a far cry from Connolly’s accommodating warmth, although he does have particular ways he likes things to be done. He asks specifically to talk to the press after they have seen him in action, rather than have to explain what he does time and again. But while mingling with reporters before a show, Connolly is polite and engaged, acknowledging even the more vapid observations some of them make. An interesting recurrence is a request for how he justifies the offence his comedy causes, especially since the material we see in the film feels comparatively gentle by today’s standards. Connolly delights in talking about willies and toilets, while his rewrite of Buddy Holly’s Oh Boy is little short of an impishly vulgar playground chant, rapturously received as it is.

It’s worth noting at this point that anyone who is interested in Connolly’s stand up routine alone should probably give Big Banana Feet a miss. There is ample material here to provide a flavour of Connolly’s act at the time but it is interspersed with long stretches of life on tour. If Grigor’s subject isn’t quite as iconic as Pennebaker’s was (although comedy fans may vehemently disagree with this statement), the director has absolutely nailed the vérité style that allows the viewer to fully immerse themselves in the experience without the interruptions of narrators or talking heads. This is a fascinating time in Connolly’s career, with one of his famous Parkinson appearances having just increased his audience considerably. It has also increased the probability of offence, with Connolly himself noting that anyone who comes to his show expecting a carbon copy of his TV persona will be in for a shock. Connolly is undoubtedly on his way up here but the whole thing still feels conspicuously unglamorous. The backdrop of The Troubles gives the footage an extra edge of uncertainty. Connolly’s eventual ascent to the status of National Treasure may be far from assured at this point but the more pressing issue is the fact that his literal survival of the tour seems almost equally in question. Grigor is keenly aware that a sense of time and place is as important to a documentary as the subject itself.

Big Banana Feet was considered all but lost for a long time, with only one ropey VHS copy wobbling its way onto the computer screens of die hards. However, in 2022 a film print turned up on eBay for £50 and was fortunately purchased by a film archivist, leading to its remastering and rerelease. A treat for documentary fans as much as comedy ones, Big Banana Feet is a great piece of filmmaking and it’s good to see it so impressively restored.

Big Banana Feet is released by the BFI on dual format DVD and Blu-ray on 20 May 2024. Special features are as follows:

* Murray Grigor and Billy Johnson in Conversation (2024, 18 mins): the director of Big Banana Feet and the road manager on Connolly’s tour of Ireland, Billy Johnson, are interviewed after the film’s premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival
* Clydescope (1974, 31 mins): a panorama of the Clyde, from Biggar to Brodick, with Billy Connolly as your guide
* BLAST (1975, 24 mins): made for the Arts Council of Great Britain, Murray Grigor’s award-winning short film explores Vorticism, a radical art movement of the early 20th century

* Restoration demo (2023, 2 mins): a before and after look at the restoration of Big Banana Feet
* Rerelease trailer (2024)
* **FIRST PRESSING ONLY** Booklet featuring new writing by Claire Walker, David Archibald, Murray Grigor, and Douglas Weir. Also includes slipcase.

Big Banana Feet
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