Culture

The Second Coming: In Defense Of Loving Russell Brand

At this point in his cycle of downfall-to-rebirth, how are we supposed to feel about Brand?

When Russell Brand returns to Australia in October for his Trews World Order stand-up tour, he’ll have to conclude his 2015 probably didn’t turn out the way he’d envisioned it twelve months earlier.

It was in October of 2014 that he published his third book, Revolution, which attempted to illustrate what his long-held cries of total political upheaval in the United Kingdom — and the world — would actually look like.

It was not a surprising next step for a comedian whose film career lay in tatters around his boots, and who’d always envisioned himself as a sexy Che Guevara figure anyhow. (His previous stand-up tour, Messiah Complex, saw him draw barely-joking comparisons between himself, Malcolm X, Gandhi and Jesus Christ). Even on a purely aesthetic level, he wears rebellion better than he ever wore Arthur’s bowler hat.

Though punctuated with his typically verbose comedy and absurd flights of fancy, Revolution was primarily a call-to-action, and its proximity to the then-impending U.K. election no accident. It was to be complemented by two documentaries: The Emperor’s New Clothes, in which Michael Winterbottom followed Rusty on his Robin Hood-esque mission to re-enfranchise the common man; and Brand: A Second Coming, Dig! documentarian Ondi Timoner’s investigation into the lad behind the rabble-rousing — the Australian premiere of which Junkee is presenting this week at Sydney Film Festival. Brand is a fertile subject for Timoner; this, after all, is the character who once stripped nude in the middle of Piccadilly Circus for a May Day protest, and who, more recently, accepted a GQ Award by detailing sponsor Hugo Boss’ past dealings with the Nazis.

As Election Eve neared, Brand’s status as one of his nation’s most important thinkers was firmly ensconced in the public consciousness; a miraculous turn-around for the former Mr. Katy Perry. His re-branding (I swear to God pun not intended, please find it in your heart to move past this with me) was aided by his news media-debunking webseries, The Trews, launched in February of 2014. (For those who haven’t seen it, imagine Media Watch if a top-knotted Paul Barry dressed only in towels and spoke “lyke ‘e’s frum Lundahn”.)

But as any follower of Russell Brand’s London Eye-like rotating career could have predicted, this was all to precede a fall.

The Rock Bottom of Ages

Brand’s hubris might have reached its tipping point when, after spending a year arguing against the charade of voting, he relented by bestowing upon Labour party leader Ed Milliband the all-powerful Brand endorsement on an episode of The Trews. All to no avail, it turned out. When May 7 rolled around, Labour was roundly trounced and the Conservatives, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, were returned to power. As he later offered on a conciliatory episode of The Trews, “My only regret is that I thought I could be involved. People were telling me I could make a difference.” Brand should have known better than to swipe at the illusory engagement of his followers. You know, kingmakers actually need to make a king from time to time.

Of course it’s possible he did manage to influence the election’s outcome; perhaps he encouraged more voters to stay at home than he ever could to turn up for Labour. But it’s unlikely Russell Brand played too significant a part in Milliband’s loss — and considering his inflated sense of self, that’s maybe even more devastating. On The Russell Brand Podcast, he jokingly accepted blame… from Canada, where he’s off filming a part in a new Nicolas Cage movie. His role? God, of course.

I imagine a newcomer to the Cult of Brand, reading the above, would have some difficulty finding sympathy in this oversized character; like an arlechinno stuck inside an episode of Only Fools and Horses. Yet as an acolyte for more than a decade, I find myself as big a fan of his as I ever was.

Matt Morgan and Russell Brand. (via RussellBrand.com)

Get Him To The Beeb

Those familiar with his early radio shows on XFM and eventually BBC2 from 2005 to 2008 heard the then-burgeoning comic wrestle with his newfound sobriety and increasing global fame, his many misadventures critiqued by long-suffering partner-in-crime Matt Morgan — a quick-witted comedy writer who often made short work of Brand’s ego.

Rusty got them both dropped from the Beeb – when Matt was on break, no less – by prank-calling Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs (Manuel) numerous times and leaving message after message about his adult exploits with his granddaughter, while Jonathan Ross tittered in the background. (There’s just no way to write out this sequence of events in a way that doesn’t seem hopelessly cruel, but by gum, it was one funny segment.) Sachsgate, as it came to be known, climaxed with the suspension of Ross from his talk show, the resignation of BBC2 controller Lesley Douglas, the cancellation of The Russell Brand Show, and a 150,000 pound fine for the British broadcaster, as the cherry.

I first saw Russell live in concert shortly afterwards, during which he seemed both chastened by the public shaming and emboldened by the infamy that resulted from it. The show was spectacular. A couple years later, he returned to Australia on the upswing, having just been paraded out proudly by his nation during the 2012 London Olympics closing ceremony atop a bus, warbling The Beatles’ ’I Am The Walrus’. He was, erm, less chastened; bolder. The show didn’t quite work. The alchemy was off. I wondered then, given the differing circumstances surrounding each tour: “Is Russell Brand actually at his best when he’s at his worst? Is it only in the mushroom cloud of his embarrassments that his comedy – and activism – actually works?”

The reunion of Russell, Matt Morgan and poet pal Mr. G on The Russell Brand Podcast, an exclusive to a user-unfriendly app called Audioboom, could have gone disastrously. Instead, it seemed to catch them at just the right time. Russell’s recent spate of humbling public failures provided an interesting narrative backdrop for the just-concluded first season, during which he reflected on his rise and fall in Hollywood, his self-imposed exile, his perceived status as one of the U.K.’s great minds, and later, as one of its most irresponsible. This all in the course of three months, mind you.

His mocking foil Morgan – now married, and a father – would allow the podcast’s title star to pontificate for only so long, before butting in and reminding him of reality. Listening to them playfully bicker is to understand that Russell Brand — when paired with a realist on radio, at least – does indeed have self-awareness. He even concedes that he’s not the funniest person in the room; that honour belongs to Matt Morgan. No one laughs louder on the podcast than Russell, and only rarely at himself.

That’s not to say his distinctive sense of humour and yarn-spinning abilities weren’t on full display. If anything, The Russell Brand Podcast acts as a reminder of his startling linguistic talents. One of the most engrossing shaggy dog stories of the podcast’s first season involved Morgan being summoned to save Brand’s ill-fated FX show Brand X, just as Russell’s American invasion was petering out. (Brand was so disinterested in the show, he’d effectively turned it into a front for an ashram.) Occasionally, Russell would slip hints about his crumbling marriage into stories; mentions of “hugging therapy” offered in passing. The trio were equally fascinated with social minutiae as they were with Russell’s brushes with fame; like the Belfast man who “belly-bounced” his neighbour during a dispute. They turned “Belly Bounce” into a catchphrase and then sent a wrestler by the name of El Nordico into the streets to howl it, to see how many Londoners would knowingly respond. El Nordico returned deflated. No one knew what he was talking about.

Another reminder that the world isn’t perpetually on Russell Time.

A Second Coming — Just Not To SXSW

Curiously unmentioned on the podcast is Brand: A Second Coming, the long-in-the-works documentary from Ondi Timoner (who previously wrangled similarly unparalleled access from hard-to-contain show-folk The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre in Dig!). The doco debuted at SXSW, though Russell skipped the premiere, describing the picture as “oddly intrusive and melancholy.”

He added, “My life was hard enough the first time round and going through it again was painful and sad.”

Brand4

Timoner and Brand.

A Second Coming is indeed sad. It’s also exhilarating and illuminating; as frenetic as Brand’s stream-of-conscious speeches, but never scatterbrained. For a long-time fan, it felt like the misunderstood comedian-activist had finally been realised fully on screen. Haters might even come to see him anew in the film. (Timoner is certainly on Team Russ, though she makes time for his critics and even confronts him by saying he believes he’s smarter than most people, in a particularly tense exchange.) Even better, the movie makes prickly Mancunian oracle Noel Gallagher – friend and frequent podcast-guest – a genuine Best Supporting Actor contender. Will there be a Russell-led revolution? “Not if I have anything to do about it,” he declares.

Ponderland…

Will Brand’s recent failure to inspire a revolution be mentioned in the coming Trews World Order tour, or will he instead focus on razzing local politicians instead, trialing his Noam Chomsky-meets-The Young Ones act on Australian shores? A fusion of his messianic aspirations with stories about his stumbles might finally allow him to communicate with audiences of all stripes.

As The Guardian’s George Monbiot describes his politics, “[they’re] rough and inchoate, but he doesn’t claim to have all the answers… Brand’s openness about his flaws makes him a good leader.” Brand’s humbling in the political realm has only made him more relatable, sympathetic and self-deprecating. Unwittingly, he’s found himself in a position where we want to listen to him more, because of these very humiliations.

Early in A Second Coming, Russell Brand says, “Puerility, scatology and revulsion are the gelignite for consciousness.” Same goes for shortcomings. He has a few.

Junkee Presents: ‘Brand: A Second Coming’ at Sydney Film Festival 

Featuring a Q&A between documentarian Ondi Timoner and Junkee editor Steph Harmon

Thursday June 11 @ Dendy Newtown, from 7pm

Tickets: $16.50 for students, $19.50 for everyone else – book here.

The Emperor’s New Clothes is also screening this week at Sydney Film Festival, before a national release on Thursday June 11. 

Russell Brand’s Australian tour kicks off in mid-October. Tickets are on sale now.

Simon Miraudo is an AFCA award-winning writer and film critic. He is the editor of Student Edge as well as a correspondent on ABC Radio and RTRFM. He also co-hosts The Podcasting Couch and tweets @simonmiraudo.