‘Janey’ Review: Documentary Drops the Ball

The Scottish comedian Janey Godley is from Glasgow, so of course a new documentary about her life would be the closing gala of the Glasgow Film Festival. But when a person’s life has been as troubled as Ms. Godley’s, a documentary needs to address those troubles directly instead of letting circumstances do the heavy lifting. Janey was filmed last year, while Ms. Godley was in remission from cancer, on a live stand-up tour across Scotland and Northern Ireland called “Not Dead Yet.”

She’s famous for witty, coarse, and very personal observational comedy that clearly reminds a lot of Scottish people of their favorite aunt, or as she jokingly calls herself, “an over-friendly cleaner who wandered down.” But the documentary, directed by John Archer, also unforgivably drops the ball when it comes to the problems Ms. Godley created for herself. And that failure to look at the whole person means the main sensation Janey creates is a bad smell. 

The outlines of Ms. Godley’s story are well known from her books and stand-up routines, but if you’ve never heard of her: she was born into a troubled Protestant family in a rough part of Glasgow, and was barely an adult when her mother died in circumstances that she’s always believed was murder. Her husband – who apparently remains her husband, though he’s neither seen nor spoken of with much fondness – was part of a criminal family who used the pubs Ms. Godley and her husband ran as a front for some of their activities. Finally, Ms. Godley was pushed too far, so she took off on her own for London and the life of a gig comedian. She built this new career starting in the 1990s when a working-class Scottish comedian was either Billy Connolly or unheard of.  

In the last decade, Ms. Godley’s success has come primarily from social media, such as waving a sign with a direct insult to Donald Trump on his trip to Scotland in 2018 or comically dubbing footage of Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon during the pandemic. But it was also during the pandemic, after the Scottish government hired Ms. Godley to front a health campaign, that racist tweets of Ms. Godley’s resurfaced. In the aftermath of that discovery, Ms. Godley was quote-unquote canceled, and Ms. Godley’s agent describes how her busy calendar was erased almost immediately. 

Both Ms. Godley and her daughter/factotum/opening act Ashley Storrie mention that the cancellation was almost worse than the cancer diagnosis, but it’s the English comedian Jimmy Carr – whose own success is badly blemished – who puts things into context. The “baying mob” of public opinion doesn’t matter, he says, as long as the stakeholders are on your side. The stakeholders he refers to, by the way, are the people who commission television programs such as this documentary.

And Ms. Godley’s fervent agreement as Mr. Carr speaks rather undermines the responsibility she took for her tweets, which at least she never pretends were jokes that failed to land. But no one presses the point. Mr. Carr’s statements are allowed to stand. And as the rest of the documentary unspools, the audience is left to wonder how someone can claim to have been canceled when they are on a sold-out comedy tour, when we are watching an uncritical documentary about their life and accomplishments, when Ms. Sturgeon remains happy to appear in public with her, and when the sentiment behind those racist tweets is allowed to float away unchallenged.

This means the final chat between Ms. Godley and her friend Shirley (who may well be the Shirley Doig named as a producer in the credits) about the incest she endured as a child, and the court case where she publicly testified against the perpetrator, creates a sense of cynicism instead of anything else. Is Ms. Godley trying to hide behind her awful past experiences to excuse her awful past behavior? It certainly feels like it.

Every cleaner knows that a mess which isn’t dealt with frankly and quickly only leaves a seeping stain, so the question becomes why on earth this documentary was made with the seeping stain of racism at its center. It would seem the quote-unquote stakeholders decided they can excuse someone like their favorite auntie and hope audiences will feel the same. That decision means that, instead of an honest celebration of a complex life, Janey is a disappointing failure that’s rotten to the core. What a mess. 

Janey recently played at the Glasgow Film Festival.

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