Brand: A Second Coming

****

Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Brand: A Second Coming
"Tempting though it might be to think, this is not a mockumentary. Brand is serious."

Stand-up, actor, egomaniac, addiction truth-teller, and now self-styled champion of the oppressed - Russell Brand’s previous libertine ethos and slightly dazed mannerisms have long made him a figure of parody. There are probably more comedy skits riffing on Russell Brand than actual comedy shows actually made by Brand himself. Yet, of late, Brand has been in the headlines more for his calls for political revolution, radical redistribution of wealth and environmental activism than for anything else.

The title of director Ondi Timoner’s film refers to the parallel Brand made, tongue-in-cheek (maybe), between himself and the son of God in his recent comedy tour “Messiah Complex” (which crops up in some of the archive footage in this film). According to his mother Rachel, he was the miracle birth she never planned on, and had actually first declared himself "The Second Jesus" at a very young age. As he's now become a political figure praised for reaching hordes of disaffected youths via his social media channels, Messiah status strangely does seem only a short step away.

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Though the film does spend some time looking back over his early life growing up in a broken home in Grays, Essex and his travels along the path to standup and movie success, a path marred by drug and sex addiction, Timoner is really interested in Russell Brand’s late-stage political blooming rather than a straight biopic. Engaging and quirky and with a sense of a tension between filmmaker and subject, Timoner’s film probably still won't convince the skeptical that the complex and contradictory focus of her attention has the ability to truly bring about his left-wing political programme, let alone articulate it. Still, the resulting portrait is of an intriguingly ambiguous but sincere man, seemingly torn between revolution and unconscious narcissism, frustrated by the resistance to the idea that he might be genuinely committed to this new direction. Tempting though it might be to think, this is not a mockumentary. Brand is serious.

Brand’s search for happiness, for some deeper meaning, seems to have kicked in early, leading him flee to London at a very young age to get a start in comedy, a path he pursued aggressively. Brand’s earlier comedy work, much of it stunt based, actually had some political inflection to it (dressing up as Jack the Ripper and storming into corporate buildings being one act), which makes his current direction perhaps easier to understand. But a lot of all these crazy antics were done when he was on drugs, a habit captured in some stark footage that shows, as one of his friends puts it, ‘Russell disappearing and some zombie taking his place”. One gig, done in a particularly intense narcotic haze, was so destructive that Brand almost severed his main artery by slamming a pint glass into his thigh. Self-destruction has always been part of the Brand myth, and he himself is frank about this and how it has hampered him.

Brand’s path to success in presenting stints on MTV and BBC radio is also covered. These were high points that were interspersed with periods where he would “fuck it all up”, as colleague and musician Noel Gallagher bluntly puts it. Gallagher is of course referring to the infamous Sachsgate scandal, where both Brand and Jonathan Ross plagued actor Andrew Sach’s voicemail with lewd messages, a prank that cost Brand his BBC job, though the incident seems ludicrously overblown now. Post-BBC, a new path beckoned as a movie star in Hollywood comedies like Bedtime Stories, Get Him To The Greek, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. His star rose fast. But his stateside entourage and co-workers recall fame becoming the overriding goal, even as Brand surrounded himself with gurus and acupuncturists in a parallel pursuit of some kind of nirvana.

As the film comes to focus on Brand’s late-stage political awakening - which seems to have put the axe to his Hollywood career as he fled for London full-time - Timoner doesn’t aggressively detail or interrogate the coherence and practicality of his developing ideology. The film actually opens with journalist Jeremy Paxman - who impatiently grilled Brand on a massively viral Newsnight programme - dismissing the possibility that Brand can have any impact on the political discourse as “a very silly question”. If Timoner gave herself the challenge of showing that Brand can prove Paxman - who is set up as “the establishment” - wrong, she doesn’t entirely succeed. We see Brand move from web jockey on his awkwardly named Youtube channel The Trews, taking down arrogant US daytime talk show hosts, and talking at political rallies. His marriage to Katy Perry disintegrates and he turns down a huge settlement, claiming their paths were already diverging and he is committed to his new left turn. But Brand himself really struggles to elevate his political discourse above simple slogans. The fact that this film comes to the UK after the May 2015 election defeat of the candidate he openly backed can't be ignored either; an undoubted knock to the idea that Brand can be the great disruptor - at this point in his career at least.

Only at one point do we hear Timoner interject to take on Brand, asking him: “Do you just think you are better than everyone else?” He throws the question back at her. Yet Timoner does interrogate the Brand image via third parties, exploring the extent to which this political arc might be a kind of manifestation of his deep-rooted narcissism. His former writing partner Matt Morgan is one of the frankest skeptics, musing that the revolutionary figures that Brand openly praises and worked into his comedy tour “Messiah Complex” - Gandhi, Malcolm X and Che Guevara - perhaps offer Brand not just an ideological route map, but also a way of associating himself with transcendental beings and borrowing their glory. Similarly his LA agent Adam Venit remembers Brand as enjoying the mind-opening spiritual retreats he went to in Hollywood as they would allow him to grandstand a little; “He was like a shepherd with a flock, mostly women.”

Where Brand seems on more solidly selfless ground is his admirable championing of a new approach to drug treatment. After all, he has “done the research” himself, as he self-deprecatingly puts it. His work in helping addicts doesn't seem to have got half the attention that his marriage to Katy Perry did. Archive footage shows him fearlessly taking on right-wing commentator Peter Hitchens in a TV debate over the issue of whether addiction is real.

Which way the scales tip with Brand, whether he can truly separate the pursuit of fame from the pursuit of happiness, is the question which the film never really resolves, but that is maybe because Brand himself can't resolve it. At one point we see Brand at a rally for young activists, seemingly acknowledging the dilemma encapsulated in his position as he shouts: “I am a narcissist, but I want to be your narcissist!” This uncertainty just serves to make him, and the film, all the more compelling. Guardian journalist and environmentalist George Monbiot is just one of several taking heads who have joined the Brand bandwagon of late, arguing to the camera that maybe it is less important what Brand’s motives are or how detailed his manifesto is, just so long as he gets people involved in progressive politics. His Trews subscriber count and impressive video hit rates suggest the Brand cheerleaders may have a point.

Reviewed on: 11 Oct 2015
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Documentary about comic Russell Brand.
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