Russell Brand created some high-profile drama at the last minute by choosing not to attend the world premiere of Ondi Timoner’s documentary about him (or give his scheduled keynote speech) at SXSW — probably getting more press than he would have by showing up as planned. The suspicion that this might be a clever ruse is underlined by “Brand: A Second Coming” itself, which, despite the subject’s excuses that it was too revealingly “uncomfortable” for his stomach, reveals little that many fans and detractors don’t already know. It’s also quite a flattering, as well as entertaining and (natch) funny, portrait of a comic talent remaking himself from pop-tart celebrity to (still funny) political commentator/agitator. Brand’s large, loyal constituency should eat this up in various formats; it won’t alter the opinions of those who don’t like him, but then they’re unlikely to be queueing up anyway.
The film’s curious history, briefly detailed by Timoner onstage after the SXSW premiere, began with a docu called “Happiness” six years ago, with a very different focus and Brand as just one major participant. Several directors passed through before Timoner was reportedly asked to save the movie a couple of years back, which she agreed to do on condition of total creative control. She shifted the focus to Brand himself at a point when he was just beginning to write his “Messiah Complex” comedy show (much excerpted here), in which he laid out for a standup audience his increasingly serious save-the-planet mission, as well as his identification with such fellow anti-establishment figures as Jesus, Malcolm X, Che and Gandhi.
Such self-comparisons might seem odious on the surface, and indeed they are quite odious all around to those who’d prefer to dismiss these concerns because they hail from an English comedian, ex-drug addict and former Mr. Katy Perry. But Brand’s motormouth eloquence and sharp if often gleefully rude intelligence certainly qualify him as much to talk about corporate greed, economic equality, climate change and other pressing issues as many professional pundits whose often dubious legitimacy is seldom questioned.
Brand might look like a dissolute rock star, but take away the expletives and jokes, and it’s clear that what he says is eagerly dismissed in some quarters precisely because he’s smart and provocative, and reaches a large audience with a message that is off-the-charts liberal by current standards. His blather about a “revolution” overthrowing the accumulated crimes of capitalism might be a pipe dream short on specifics, but the reasons he gives for being fed up with the status quo are very persuasive — and delivered in such a way that they reach people who’d be bored stiff by any standard political sermonizing.
“Brand: A Second Coming” reviews his early days as a troubled youth from a broken Essex home, seeking fame in London as early as 16, toppling into drug and sex addiction, then cleaning up in time to graduate from English TV notoriety to international stardom. While not much is said about it, he seems to have wholly abandoned his movie career (though the “Arthur” remake might also have helped that cause). After an eye-opening trip to witness staggering poverty in Africa (he visited a vast Kenyan dump where foragers live), he also seems to have given up on the type of pop mega-celebrity that his short-lived marriage to Perry heightened by association.
But Brand is still famous, of course, and rich. The arguments — belabored here not just by media foes but also briefly by Timoner herself — that he’s some sort of hypocrite for being those things while agitating for the poor and needy seem superficial, to say the least. As we see, Brand not only opens his big mouth, he also donates money and gets things done (like an in-the-works London rehab community center). As he says, why would he advocate the end of capitalism if he cared about people like himself losing their wealth?
Of course he’s a narcissist and exhibitionist, like many other media figures. But unlike them, he admits it, worries about it (he’s of the hyperactive-man-chasing-spiritual-tranquility ilk), and puts it to various greater-good uses. What upsets his foes (like his regular flame-warring nemesis Sean Hannity) is that he tweaks them with such laughing disregard for propriety, and that the politicized rage beneath his antic barrage is genuinely threatening to the structures they’re wedded to. He has a powerful weapon they lack: He is fun.
Though it runs a full two hours, “Brand: A Second Coming” is never dull, moving at a busy clip appropriate to its seemingly tireless globe-trotting protagonist. Only toward the very end, when it takes a bit too long wrapping up, does the pic begin to wear out its welcome. Particular kudos are due the four principal editors credited with pulling a mountain of material into viable shape, but all tech and design contributions (including some brief animations) are nicely turned.