Beating up on Russell Brand is easy. He’s crass, pretentious and astonishingly egotistical. He looks like a parody of a burnt-out rockstar and callow spiritual seeker, with his tight leather pants and yoga beads and greasy hair. His Hollywood career has been distinguished mainly by supporting roles in middlebrow comedies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek. For many people, he’ll always be the washed-up star who dumped Katy Perry.
Even those who agree with and appreciate Brand’s staunch anticapitalist politics (and I’m one of them) find him problematic – grandiose in his conclusions, vague in defining exactly what he means by “revolution”, always inserting himself into the conversation, unabashedly posing like Che Guevara and Jesus Christ.
At first glance, Russell Brand: A Second Coming, Ondi Timoner’s 2015 documentary about the comedian, political agitator and self-admitted narcissist, is not a film for his detractors. The subject’s bug-eyed visage and wild energy take up nearly every frame of the manic, exhilarating film. Though it’s far from fawning – indeed, it's a very smart and complex deconstruction of the man’s ego – that ego still completely dominates the proceedings. Brand almost never stops talking in all of the footage, which was filmed over years, with varying levels of approval from him. (Unhappy with the final cut, Brand tried to block the film from opening SXSW. Timoner has admitted he was very difficult to work with.)
Timoner’s film recounts Brand’s working-class upbringing outside of London, his dogged pursuit of fame as a pranksterish young street comic, and his sordid history of drug and sex addiction. It also documents Brand’s acclaimed Messiah Complex tour, in which he performed stand-up inspired by four revolutionary figures: Christ, Gandhi, Guevara and Malcolm X. Clips show Brand mixing dirty jokes with serious discussion about transforming society.
Brand the disruptor
That’s the thing about Brand – once you get past the clowning and posing and raunch, he opens his mouth to talk about the state of the world and suddenly everything he says is right. Inequality keeps getting worse. War, racism and poverty are rampant. Bankers move trillions across borders while governments brutalise refugees. Our elected representatives serve the rich, not us. Democracy fails us. Capitalism is destroying the climate. The media constantly spews bad ideas into our minds and discourages us from thinking or fighting back. He’s remarkably eloquent and astute about all of this, and most impressively, he’s able to entertain while doing it.
Brand is at his most electrifying when he’s disrupting business as usual on TV or at awards shows or other citadels of glib media artifice. A Second Coming includes footage of some of his more well-known capers – being kicked out of the GQ Awards after calling out Hugo Boss for designing Nazi uniforms, earnestly discussing Wall Street tyranny on The View and, most famously, vehemently calling for a socialist revolution on BBC’s Newsnight as overmatched host Jeremy Paxman sputtered like an indignant school principal. Even more astonishing is Brand’s anarchic appearance on MSNBC program Morning Joe, dismantling every TV convention and simulacrum of propriety while the stunned hosts are utterly frozen.
There’s a moment at the heart of the film that perfectly illuminates what makes Brand so fascinating. It’s a small, almost offhand moment amidst the rush of the film, but so weird and confronting. Brand is interviewing Perry while Timoner’s cameras roll. She’s reflecting, guardedly, on Brand’s spirituality and admits she wouldn’t want to give up the trappings of her success. Then she touches on their relationship. “I mean, I think you’re a genius,” she tells him. “You make me look good, and that’s why we’re together and I picked you.”
Brand, meanwhile, makes impish faces, teasing her, until she exclaims in frustration, “This is stupid!” and stands up, abruptly ending the interview. In just a few seconds, Brand has inspired one of the most famous and image-conscious people in the world to question her own materialism, get way more personal than she wants to, then lose it. She is, for that moment, a real person and, however awkward it is, it makes her seem more appealing than ever.
More than his stinging humour, his mortifying honesty or his radicalism, it’s Brand’s genius at getting under the skin of the rich and powerful people he mingles with and puncturing – or shattering – the illusion that they are better or more important than us that makes him a hero to millions.
Brand the hypocrite
But does all this make a terrible hypocrite of Brand, who is, after all, quite rich himself? That’s up for discussion. He’s the guy who speaks at a protest against income inequality then rides home in a limo. He owns an empty apartment in London that he’s never set foot in. He’s surrounded by privilege.
In the tense onscreen conversations between director Timoner and Brand, it seems she might side with his critics. Either way, her film makes a powerful case that his enemies – the rich and sheltered media elite who “don’t want it to change,” as Brand says – are all the more hypocritical.
It’s impossible to accuse Brand of being insincere. His fiercely antiestablishment convictions – for example, that voting is useless in the capitalist system – are way more risky and challenging than the usual milquetoast celebrity liberalism. It’s cost him, too. His movie career is all but over, as his agent admits.
Brand is upfront about the contradictions of his life. It’s clear the question of hypocrisy torments him constantly and drives everything he does. It’s a cliché to speak of celebrities using their fame to help the world – Brand seems to have a strategy for imploding his own career to help spark an actual worldwide revolution. If you listen to him long enough – and millions of fans do – it sort of makes sense.
Brand the icon
Presumably the revolution needs famous people, too, who can help with their influence and charisma and huge media platforms. Brand runs a YouTube channel from which he regularly lambastes conservative media and politicians – including the Australian government – for no profit. He started a program to employ recovering addicts in London and has campaigned against housing inequality in the UK with some success. He is “the best thing that’s happened to the left in years” according to environmental activist and Guardian commentator George Monbiot, who appears in the film. “I f***in’ own it... I’m an egotist, I’m a f***in’ narcissist," Brand tells a crowd of demonstrators. “But I’m your narcissist.”
Brand says he chose the four icons as the focus of his tour because they were all willing to die for their causes. A young, smacked-out Brand once stabbed himself onstage during a performance and nearly lost his leg. You get the sense his efforts to make the world a better place involve a similar level of insane determination. Russell Brand: A Second Coming reveals a man who’s never comfortable – whether in his fame or in his own skin – and has translated that restlessness into a stubborn drive to change the entire world.
Watch Russell Brand: A Second Coming on Sunday 28 May at 9:30pm on SBS.