Like most American comedy fans, I was first introduced to Eddie Izzard when HBO aired his brilliant Dress to Kill special back in1999. It was an immediate word-of-mouth smash in comedy circles; everyone seemed to be asking, Who is this incredibly funny British man, and why is he wearing all that make-up? His style is a keen mix of high intellect and robust silliness (somewhat in the style of his admitted influences the Goons and Monty Python), a free-form bouillabaisse of social commentary, historical satire, and uproarious tangential storytelling. When that special hit our shores, Izzard was a comedy rock star, it would appear, overnight—he had seemingly bounded out of the ether, fully formed and all-out brilliant. But he was 37 years old when that breakthrough occurred, and behind him lay years of hard work and dispiriting failure. Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story tells the tale of those years.The documentary, directed by Izzard’s ex-girlfriend Sarah Townsend, follows two narrative tracks. We tag along with the comedian in 2003, as he does workshop gigs and early dates for his Sexie tour, culminating in a performance at Wembley Stadium. That material serves as the framing device for his biography, which is told mostly in his own words (through interviews, voice-overs, and stand-up material) and illustrated by a remarkable assortment of archival footage.
We see Izzard visiting his childhood home, and discussing the death of his mother when he was quite young (which provides some heartbreaking moments, particularly towards the end, which hints that her death may well be his ‘Rosebud’). The film then tracks his evolution as an artist, from stage actor to troupe comedian to street performer and then, finally, to solo stand-up comic. He speaks plainly about those early years of struggle, explaining his method of perseverance: “You’ve got to believe. You’ve got to imagine yourself in the situation.”
We see Izzard (and some of his comic contemporaries) explain how he developed his particular, specific voice as a stand-up comedian. Those years of fighting indifferent audiences and club owners came to an end with his breakthrough gig in 1991, performing at the “Hysteria 3” benefit at the London Palladium. From there, he made the risky move of renting a West End theater and developing his first one-man show; multiple successes followed, as did his decision to come out as a transvestite (though, once he did, he seemed to feel freer to use more elaborate staging for his bigger gigs).
The film is most interesting, however, as a look at the life of a stand-up, and the process of how they do what they do. There’s some fascinating footage of him on stage (and not always doing well), and plenty of backstage material, as he gets ready for shows, works through material, and explains his methodology—and how it’s different for this tour. For most of the 1990s, it seems, he worked in a manner similar to countless other comics (George Carlin springs to mind); he would start a tour mixing in new material with bits from the last one, and then slowly work the old material out through the course of the tour, which would consist of all-new stuff by the end. But this led to some controversy for the comic in 2000; the BBC program “Weekend Watchdog” made hay of a mistake by a venue early in the Circle tour (they trumpeted the gig as “all new material,” when he was still early in the process) and accused him of ripping off the public. So when he hit the road again in 2003, he went out cold, all new stuff, and had to work it through (“Well, that wasn’t very good!” he cheerily notes after an early gig).
These peeks into the process are always fascinating (similar material in Jerry Seinfeld’s film Comedian had an equally intriguing quality). Some of the conventional bio-doc tropes, however, are a little tiresome; I, for one, could go the rest of my days without seeing a picture that stars with people on the street being asked about the comic in question. But the inventive animated transitions are nice, and some of the steps outside the form (like a funny analysis of the evolution of his on-stage looks) are clever.
Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story isn’t terribly innovative, and there are some holes in its story arc—since the bulk of the material was shot on that 2003 tour, much of his recent activity (both onstage and off) is rather glossed over. But his story, with its false starts and stumbles, propelled by the sheer force of his will and determination, is an interesting one, and there are enough sprinkles of his stand-up act to provide laughs throughout.