clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Russell Brand is a messiah in this documentary, but it's complex

New, 51 comments

'He’s a very naughty boy.'

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Every so often, the people in Russell Brand's life will take time to tell you that he's a crazy person. That's the impression you get from director Ondi Timoner's latest documentary Brand: A Second Coming. "He's mental" is a frequent refrain throughout the film, as Timoner guides us through his early life to his drug-and-sex-addled rise to fame all the way to his more recent turn as a political commentator. But, as absurd as the proceedings can often become, Timoner’s camera treats Brand with a kind of bemused awe, bordering on adoration. That it made its debut at South by Southwest is all too appropriate. Everyone here — brands and human beings alike — is trying to change the world in their own way. And it’s clear that Timoner thinks Russell Brand probably could change the world, despite his many flaws. After all, crazier things have happened.

How can we take his call to action seriously?

In the process of making that point, Timoner also has to show that Brand is a cleaned-up addict. The camera never shies away from Brand’s darkest moments — like freebasing crack cocaine or his divorce from Katy Perry. Those moments make some of his wild assertions about his revolutionary status seem outright bonkers. "He’s a very naughty boy," says BBC journalist Jeremy Paxman, echoing Monty Python. It therefore makes some sense that Brand cancelled his appearance at SXSW. To many of his detractors, he’s a self-obsessed man-child, as addicted to fame as he was to any drug he’s done. And he’s rich besides. How can we take his call to action seriously?

As the title makes abundantly clear, Brand fancies himself a modern-day Christ figure. And he really means it, earnestly, without a hint of irony, and in a way that makes you recoil before he manages to draw you in. In his 2013 comedy special Messiah Complex, he claims he’s "a little bit like Jesus," the kind of man who can shake the world by force of personality and truth — after he makes a dick joke, of course.

Archival footage Timoner employs reveals Brand in his younger days as being addicted to attention, but having an almost preternatural charisma to match his hyper-smart mouth and penchant for over-the-top antics. That addiction propelled him to stardom, as he effectively willed himself into pop culture consciousness by being as outrageous as possible. But after getting disillusioned by Hollywood excess, he turned his attentions to "changing consciousness" by fighting for the disenfranchised and calling for the wholesale overthrow of the global socioeconomic order.

He effectively willed himself into pop culture consciousness by being as outrageous as possible

Timoner uses the absurdity of Brand’s egomania as an often hilarious counterpoint to what she clearly perceives as the actor’s sincere desire to do good in the world. At one point in the film, Brand finds himself talking about forsaking his worldly possessions with Mike Tyson, but the conversation quickly devolves into how Tyson loves Brand’s shoes. You get the sense that, while he probably never gave up the shoes, he would like to be applauded for at least thinking deeply about it. Indeed, Brand is rich many times over, but these days spends his time agitating for economic change and the distribution of wealth. And he has developed a sizeable following in the process, since what he says resonates with those hit hardest by the recent economic downturn.

The back half of the film explores his political activities at length. Brand has gone viral over and over again for commenting on the more dunderheaded aspects of news media, and perhaps rightfully so. When it comes to economic theory and drug addiction, he seems to know his stuff, or at least more than the average talking head on television. There is truth in the idea that change needs to come. But when talking about what comes next after the inevitable revolution he preaches about, things tend to quickly descend into pablum about higher consciousness and community. Timoner says that she hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid, but she isn’t especially hard on him in the film either. Presumably because, as the film seems to express, it’s enough to break down the door in order to let others through.

The idea for Brand: A Second Coming came about seven years ago, and several directors passed through the production since. Timoner’s take in the final product is a simultaneously uncompromising and fawning in its depiction of Brand, where his ridiculousness only serves to prove the point that one man, even Mr. Katy Perry himself, can make a difference. Here, we see plainly that Brand is every bit as intelligent as his opponents, even if his message isn’t entirely coherent.

The film is Brand Agnostic

She stops short of saying he’s the Messiah, but you might say she’s Brand Agnostic. He’s good at what he does, and she’ll have you believe he might have the makings of a leader in him. But should the revolution actually come, don’t be too quick to follow Russell Brand into the breach.