To see Ondi Timoner ‘s “Brand: A Second Coming,” the opening night film at SXSW, is to mumble to yourself, “Arrgh. Where to start with this guy?”
On the one hand, “Brand” presents Russell Brand — all leather pants lank, Sunset Strip hair-metal coiffure and the subject of — is a very good (and very occasionally, great) stand-up comic, an exceptionally bright guy who has written as wisely and thoughtfully about the nature of addiction as any formerly drug-addled celebrity ever, who was married to pop star Katy Perry for a bit and was extremely funny in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”
On the other, as “Brand” demonstrates, his public persona — far more in his native England than here — is so annoying that one struggles to define him by parsing the differences between such descriptive terms as wanker, tosser and nob.
On the one hand, Timoner shows him to be a devoted lefto and activist who seems genuinely interested in spiritual enlightenment.
On the other, he’s the sort who titles a stand-up tour “Messiah Complex” and riffs on Jesus, Malcolm X, Che Guevara and Gandhi, pictures of whom hang in behind him.
Sure, he’s self-conscious and goofy about himself on some level, but seems deadly serious about wanting to be a vehicle for revolutionary, anti-corporate ideas.
But then, some of these stage jokes resolve in puns, so, you know, points deducted for lack of craft on those, buddy.
In “Brand” he occasionally says something insightful about the nature of change. In re: his devotion to yoga and meditation as bulwarks against addiction to drugs and sex: “You can’t think your way into acting differently, but you can act your way into thinking differently.” (That one is straight-up 12-step boilerplate, but it is a good idea nonetheless.)
On the blend of activism and comedy: “(I want) to make this message interesting to listen to.” And his appearance on Morning Joe remains absolutely brilliant.
And it is hard not to feel awful for him when Perry says, on camera, “You make me look good; that’s why I picked you.” Suddenly, you see the adolescent Smiths fan who struggled with bulimia, heroin and a largely absent father who seems to be, on camera at least, a genuinely terrible person who took his son to hookers.
All of which means that director Ondi Timoner (apparently the SIXTH director on this project, she revealed in the post-film Q&A) had an odd job in front of her, which “Brand” amply demonstrates. At every point, it seems as if she is working with a jumble of material that she hammers into shape — some concert footage here, some vintage clips there.
Brand is a charismatic, energetic, subject for a doc. But he is also clearly a control freak of multiple minds about everything (temporary fame vs. immortality on a world-historical scale, being cool vs. being humble), especially about being the subject of a doc.
Timoner said during the Q&A that “working with Russell Brand was difficult” and that he tried to control every situation.
“I really wanted to work with Russell and make him happy, but I also needed to protect the film,” she said noting that as recently as January, Brand tried to stop the film from screening at SXSW. (SXSW director Janet Pierson promised it would be shown in spite of the pressure.)
Then again, Timoner has been here before with “Dig!” the 2004 film about the rivalry between the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols, both of whom are led by exhaustively egomaniacal frontmen (especially BJM majordomo Anton Newcombe) and both of whom are about as psychedelic as your socks. She knows from hard-to-work-with loons who may have a higher opinion of themselves than is warranted.
Which is to say that examining both “Dig!” and “Brand,” one finds oneself conflicted: Am I reviewing the movie or the person? To what extend are they inextricable?
The biographical, more or less linear “Brand” focuses on the transformation of its subject from stand-up comic and national punchline in the UK (and B-list celeb in the U.S. and you better believe that annoys him) to activist.
Brand is fond of broad gestures (a poorly reviewed book called “Revolution,” lots of vague and well meaning chatter about spiritual transformation in face of awful political systems, calling his tour “Messiah Complex”).
But he can be amazingly articulate (again, his stuff on addiction is great and his thoughts about staffing his business headquarters with former addicts and those struggling with metal illness is a terrific one, concrete and real-world) while, again, looking like a roadie for Ratt.
And the biographical “Brand” paints a picture a guy very close to the Lenny-Bruce-ranting-about-the-First-Amendment phase of his career, which isn’t all that funny.
As a writing partner puts it about the idea of Brand moving into electoral politics, “The one thing he doesn’t want to have to do is be serious.”
Is not being funny the same as being serious? Brand may find out the hard way.
And in “Brand,” Brand is exceptionally candid and forthright about his addictions. There is film of him smoking heroin, which clearly turned him into a zombie and nearly killed both him and his career. Then again, he is also a devout exhibitionist.
With “Brand,” the subject wanted to have it both ways: He wanted the “LOOK AT ME!!!” of a doc and the “LOOK AT WHAT I WANT YOU TO LOOK AT” of trying to block its premiere.
“Brand: A Second Coming” has been in the works for seven years, around the time Brand, already famous in the UK but a cypher in the States, was starting to make a name for himself here with his turn as a rock star in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Timoner said during the Q&A that the late Albert Maysles and Oliver Stone approached Brand about making a doc.
That fell through, Brand tried to direct it for a bit and eventually Timoner was asked to come on board two years ago. “The magic wasn’t in the rough cut I saw,” Timoner said. She said she wanted control over the final cut but that she did remove some things “for ethical reasons for Russell.”
Both Brand (and “Brand”) leaves it an open question as to whether the subject actually believes that abandoning Hollywood fame and starting a YouTube channel can lead to actual revolution, that being annoyed at Fox news is the same as being a guru.
As “Brand” shows, they aren’t. Does he know that or does it not matter all that much?