The film opens with Jeremy Paxman who when asked if Russell Brand will overthrow the government, he recalls the famous line from Monty Python, “He’s not the messiah: he’s a very naughty boy.” And we’re off. Brand: A Second Coming is less a straightforward biographical film, and more a depiction of what happens with fame isn’t quite enough for an narcissist and and addict. Made by Ondi Timoner, who has won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance twice for her previous films – Dig! (2004) and We Live in Public (2009). Timoner makes documentaries about vibrant characters, and she tells us people like Brand are drawn to her.
Before Timoner, both Albert Maysles and Oliver Stone were among the original possible directors, until it landed in Timoner’s hand. In the Q&A after the screening, she explains that originally the documentary was called ‘Happiness’ and featured Brand interviewing people, many of them famous, about what happiness means to them. Timoner couldn’t commit to the project, telling Brand that in every interview, he was the most interesting person in the room. It was Timoner who decided to make the film biographical, only after Brand reluctantly agreed.
It was a good move. Timoner catches Brand at a turning point of his life. She would have been uninterested in a movie about an actor married to a pop star, but a documentary about an actor constructing himself as a messiah? That’s an interesting film, even if you think his desires are ludicrous (which I don’t believe Timoner does). Timoner is clever in her approach and takes time to make the film visually interesting, including scenes animation laid over Brand’s narration.
We are told that it’s when Brand visits Kibera in Africa for Comic Relief that’s the tipping point. Brand himself says that he really didn’t think much of going, that it would good for him to do something for Comic Relief. But Kiberia is the biggest slum in Africa and Brand watches kids forage through medical waste for recyclables. Brand then almost immediately after finds himself at a fashion show in Paris with then wife Katy Perry, and he says he just can’t do it anymore. Timoner manages to make you really believe in the acute genuine nature of Brand’s unlikely career change. Timoner, who had been granted full creative control, could have shown Brand as a drug addled, unhinged narcissist, but instead, we are lead to really believe in the purity of Brand’s intentions, even if they aren’t likely to be achieved.
Timoner is very generous towards Brand. She doesn’t let him get away with everything, but she is clearly rooting for him. The film depicts Brand well-intentioned, but as thin skinned. Brand does not handle criticism well. The moments in which his motives are questioned, we watch him dissolve into an angry child. Much more of a naughty boy, than a messiah.
But when Brand is allowed to do what he does best, the film is at its best. The highlights of the film are the scenes in which we watch Brand run wild, like the now infamous MSNBC interview in which three TV anchors have done no research and Brand tears them to shreds. Brand really shines when he is unencumbered, like when a little girl from his hometown reminds him, “You married Katy Perry!” his mock outrage becomes another stand out moment. The insight into those around him provides an occasionally needed break from Brand’s Essex twang, with interviews with his mother being particularly moving, and moments with Noel Gallagher (of Oasis) being utterly hilarious. On the other hand, the fleeting scene that includes Perry, with her being childish and vulgar, was painful to watch.
I enjoyed this film. Timoner is an intelligent director and she turns something that could have been truly terrible into something that is aware of itself, that is clever and well-paced. Under a less skilled director – or indeed, in the hands of Brand himself – this could have been disastrous, but it pushes on. It gets away with it. It’s an engaging story about an engaging person. Russell Brand isn’t the second coming, but his second coming (his attempt at one, anyway), was captivating.