The more popular they get, the more TV biographies have come to follow predictable formulas. The narrator intones about the star's ups and downs, good times and bad. Fellow stars reminisce about backstage antics and "personal" moments. Career snapshots are intermingled with tales of booze and drugs.
Tommy...A Family Portrait, the new NFB biography of Newfoundland comedian and Codco co-founder Tommy Sexton, is something else altogether. Yes, it's a montage of sorts about the career of one of Canada's most intelligent and flamboyant TV personalities - a consummate mimic, merciless social critic, high-end drag queen and undeniably talented performer, who burst onto the national scene with the stage-based Cod on a Stick, before moving to TV as part of Codco, The Wonderful Grand Band and The S & M Comic Book.
But this documentary is many other things as well: an intimate portrait of a complex family; a snapshot of small town Atlantic Canada in the '60s and '70s; a window on the stormy relationship of a gay son and his drinking, swaggering dad; and the story of a mother who knew from early on that her middle child (of nine) was different from the rest, who came to love him with unbridled pride, and who lost him, when he was just 36, to AIDS. More than simply a biography, Tommy is a family movie, albeit a very public one - produced by the National Film Board and set to air on CBC on Thursday at 8 p.m.
The documentary is co-directed by Tommy's sister, Mary Sexton (who produced the comedy Violet, starring Mary Walsh, last year) and her husband, Nigel Markham. And it depends for much of its narrative and emotional heft on interviews with the comedian's eight siblings, his mother, and his father, who died in 1999. Salt-of-the-earth Newfoundland women and generally big, burly men, they are often as captivating in their own way as Tommy was in his. But it's clear from start to finish that Tommy was the family star (and if this project has a fault, it's that no one involved is about to let us in on any major character flaws).
Tommy remained their star no matter how much they may have razzed him about wearing his sister Marina's first communion dress in a Grade 2 production of Alice in Wonderland, and no matter how often, once Tommy made it big, that he parodied them all on national TV. Mimicry, of course, was Sexton's stock-in-trade. "Nobody was free if they caught his fancy," remembers his brother Gary. "He was like some kind of comic vampire or something. He didn't want to kill them or drink their blood, but he wanted their foibles, he wanted their quirks."
That could make for wildly campy, spot-on send-ups of all kinds of Canadian icons, and many of the best are interspersed with the family memories. There's Sexton as Leonard Cohen, strumming his guitar in a smoky bar and singing, "I hate to leave but I've got to go/ And I won't look back even though I know/ That the day will come when I know you'll know/ That my reason to go was not to show--" Or Anne Murray, in spiky hair and garishly dyed leather miniskirt, singing, to the tune of Snowbird, "Beneath the frozen water cold and drawn/ The rainbow trout lies waiting for its roe to turn to spawn/ The rainbow sings a song it always sings/ And speaks to me of frying pans and boil-ups in the spring."
On the set of Codco, where he performed alongside Mary Walsh, Greg Malone, Cathy Jones and Andy Jones, Sexton's eye for imitation often wandered back to his childhood. Among his favourite subjects was his mentally challenged sister, Edwina - he called her "the glue that held the family together" - whom he managed to both rib and honour in the same skits. Other sketches combine the comic and the tragic, as in a rock-video riff about a drinking, short-tempered father that ends with his throwing a TV set at the kids as they run for cover singing, "No one ever knows when our daddy's gonna blow."
Sexton's relationship with his father, Ned, is something several of the family members try to help viewers get a handle on. His brother Marty describes it as "love well hidden between layers of confrontation," frankly recalling the many times Ned Sexton called Tommy a queer. Ned himself even grapples with the issue. It's clear he would have preferred that all his kids were straight. But he is able to shift, as well, to a quiet, fatherly pride. "He's the most versatile that Newfoundland will ever produce," he says flatly at one point. "Probably I'm inclined to brag a little."
The very notion of family life routinely took a whipping in Tommy's sketches. Marg at the Mental, one of his openly insane characters, squawks from her hospital bed, "You know that door in the commercials that mental illness is behind? Sure, that's my mom's place. Mental illness begins in the home." And he always reserved an especially biting humour for organized religion (which his siblings recall as central to their upbringing) portraying nuns who extort death-bed donations to help pay the upkeep on the parish fleet of Buicks, or Tammy Faye Baker joyfully singing about extortion and fraud.
It was religion, in fact, where Tommy's mother drew the line. She seems to have laughed at pretty well everything her unconventional son did - from Spook, the poodle-haired dopehead, to Dynasty's addle-brained Crystal, to Justin Thornhill, pretentious British host of Literary Loonies (in which he once pondered, "Were the Brontës ever warm or dry?"). But when Tommy aimed his barbs at the church, his mother recalls, she tried to get him to go easy; he told her that he couldn't, that his audience was bigger than just his mom.
Not that she didn't forgive him. Throughout the film, the relationship of Tommy and his mother emerges as a great love story. It's one that includes her delight at his excitement over landing his first big role in a school play, her nervousness at his flight to Toronto and fame, her stoic (and prayerful) response to his hesitant announcement, years before his death in 1993, that he was HIV-positive. Like any mother worth her salt, her memories are tinged with nostalgia and longing, but never regret. "I'll never forget how funny it all was, and how new it was," she says at one point, still clearly in awe of her son's knack for turning Newfoundland's quirks, and her own family's peccadilloes, into national comedy. Tommy's family, in turn, has created a suitable memento - irreverent, exhaustive and personal - to the man who made so many Canadians laugh.
Opening Night: Tommy...A Family Portrait, Thursday, 8 p.m., CBC