Few American audiences know much about comedian-turned-activist Russell Brand beyond his roles in a handful of studio comedies, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Get Him to the Greek” chief among them, but documentarian Ondi Timoner’s engrossing portrait “BRAND: A Second Coming” does a considerable job of bringing the uninitiated up to speed. The extensive two-hour running time only slightly hinders a simultaneously amusing and powerful encapsulation of Brand’s journey from outrageous provocateur to enlightened zealot preaching for social change.
The paradox of Brand’s apparent sensitivity toward the reception of his message-mongering, which emerges as a fascinating centerpiece of the movie, extended beyond the screen when the subject pulled out of a scheduled appearance at its SXSW premiere and an accompanying keynote lecture. “BRAND” makes a strong case for the comedian to reconsider his misgivings about the project by consolidating the logic behind his unique career trajectory, and effectively furthering his cause.
Though she wasn’t the first name attached to the production — which was initially conceived by the late Albert Maysles and passed through a half dozen hands, including Brand himself, before it came to her — Timoner is a natural fit for this topic, having previously documented an erratic creative mind grappling with fame in the Sundance-winning “We Live in Public,” a portrait of pioneering internet celebrity Josh Harris. Like Harris, Brand eventually used the web for uncensored exposure, but his rascally pedagogical online series “The Trews” arrived at the tail-end of a much longer story. Using ample footage shot over the course of several years, Timoner tracks Brand from his humble beginnings in Essex through the rocky early stages of his career, which culminated in psychotic standup performances and a drug-fueled meltdown.
Later finding a second wind with Hollywood fame, Brand slipped again with an apparent sex addiction and a heavily documented marriage to Katy Perry that ended in divorce. Timoner slickly captures the toll these incidents take on the energetic performer’s risk of burning out at every turn, but only insofar as they play into the more sophisticated next stages of his career.
Somewhere along the lines, through his discovery of meditation and a desire to emulate historically canonized leaders ranging from Ghandi and Malcolm X to none other than Jesus (whose physical appearance he cleverly mimics), Brand becomes a cogent mouthpiece for the underprivileged. In one effective sequence, he recalls a trip to a garbage dump in Africa that he followed up with a fashion show appearance at Perry’s side, and ruminates on the way the contrast fueled his perception of an endemic problem with the cultural awareness. Moments like these are riddled throughout the narrative and shrewdly peer beyond the characterizations of Brand as a rambling aspirational ideologue. In doing so, Timoner illustrates the specific rationale for Brand’s decision to shift further away from pure entertainment.
Yet it’s his capacity as an entertainer that gives the movie its recurring subversive kick. “A trickster exists beyond morality,” he says at one point, but in clips from his scathing standup show “Messiah Complex,” it’s clear that his unruly delivery stems from deep-seated convictions. Whether cogently trashing Fox News or drawing hilarious parallels between himself and famous activists, Brand manages the tricky balance of amusing his audience and rallying them to his cause at once.
That distinct appeal carried over to the movie’s SXSW premiere: During two clips of his public appearances that went viral — one in which he wrestles control of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” with shocking innuendo and another where he sternly deconstructs the skepticism of BBC interviewer Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight — the crowd erupted into cheers. Brand’s heated convictions, rather than the bumpy road preceding them, give the movie its riveting hook.
They also highlight the tragedy of a less supportive reception to his book, “Revolution,” and the toll that a flood of bad reviews take on the apparently thin-skinned figure. However, “BRAND” goes a little too far in sympathizing with this outcome. A montage set to a mournful Radiohead tune as discouraging headlines flash across the scene marks one of several times when Timoner overstates Brand’s status as a victim of his own ambition. Too dense for its own good, the collage-like structure could benefit from slimming down, much like the cogent process through which Brand expresses his ideas.
However, it’s hard to blame the filmmaker for including so much behind-the-scenes material that creates a real sense of getting to know Brand beyond the most widely circulated media already out there. Seen in his drug days, flirting with women backstage, and revisiting his hometown, Brand becomes a credible figure whose activism is ultimately enhanced by his uneven route. Finding kindred spirits ranging from Rosie O’Donnell to Occupy Wall Street, he’s also one of the rare characters to inhabit popular culture and subvert it for his own means. As his writing partner Matt Morgan puts it, Brand intends to “inject his madness into the world.”
Whether or not he can achieve that murky goal, his attitude makes “BRAND” an persuasive advocate for his cause. Along with explaining his motivation, it rescues the underlying purpose behind his freewheeling, radical mode of expression. If Brand remains in touch with the convictions he espouses in “BRAND,” it should serve as a prelude to another stage in his increasingly politicized career. “Laughter is unifying,” he tells Timoner, but in “BRAND,” it’s just the first step in a much longer equation.