Dubious revolutionary Russell Brand takes it to the banks


The Emperor's New clothes (M). Director: Michael Winterbottom. Starring: Russell Brand. 101 minutes

What you make of this documentary will largely depend on what you make of Russell Brand. Few would deny that the comedian and self-styled revolutionary has fire in his belly. It's on full display in his 2014 book Revolution, in the eloquent rants on his topical web series The Trews, in his iconoclastic takedown of fashion giant Hugo Boss during his GQ Men of the Year Awards acceptance speech in 2013.

On the other hand there is a touch of the Bono about Brand. Wealthy and egotistical, it's hard at times not to wonder how much of his invective against 'the one per cent' is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. There is a moment in The Emperor's New Clothes where he backs away from demanding massive taxation of the very wealth. The line is played for laughs, but you have to wonder.

The documentary, directed by prolific British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, is essentially a 100-minute tirade against the bankers who continue to get rich while life for everyday Brits and Americans just gets tougher. Brand draws a poignant distinction between the lives of those who run the banks and those who clean them — they work in the same building, but live in different worlds.

The bankers whom he targets are deserving villains. Brand has done his research; he documents the kind of cash pulled in by those at the top, and compares it to what is earned by the variety of everyday, working class folk he interviews. He wonders why, in the wake of the financial crises suffered in recent years, more bankers have not gone to prison. These are salient questions, and Brand doesn't baulk.

The film highlights Brand's status as a champion of the people, as he wanders the streets of his hometown of Grays, Essex, rubbing shoulders with the locals. He is also a 'sex symbol' and, by the same token, a notorious womaniser, and the film highlights this, to its detriment: there are numerous shots of women making eyes at him, and his interviews with women reveal 'flirt' as one of his default modes.

Brand has set the bar high, but his efforts to pull Michael Moore-style stunts often fall flat. There is a recurring scenario in which he fronts up to a bank, is denied access to the president of said bank, and instead rattles his arguments off to the security guard. ('Adversarial' is another of his default modes.) If this is an attempt to highlight the inaccessibility of the men at the top, the joke wears thin quickly.

But Brand has a way with words, and charisma to burn. Time and again he finds a turn of phrase or string of sentences that, whether it ends in a punchline or a prophecy, stirs the viewer's sense of moral outrage. And this, ultimately, is his intention; he admits at the start of the film that he is not going to tell you anything you don't already know. His revolution stems not from revelation, but from uprooting apathy.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Russell Brand, Michael Winterbottom, The Emperor's New Clothes



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Existing comments

I have little time for the celebrity news circuit. Those people famous for being famous but...Russell Brand is kind of interesting. Married, for five minutes, to Katy Perry and this provided so much fodder for magazines. His life is way out there, good luck to him. He will continue to delight his many fans, I very much hope.
Pam | 17 June 2015

Currently reading his book and he addresses the "pot calling the kettle black" argument very well with his usual vulgar eloquence. Never did comprehend the argument that those who criticise the social order must be poor. I think he is someone who can spread inconvenient truths where they would not otherwise go, Good luck to him!
Phil | 19 June 2015

I have not seen the film, but your arguments seem cogent. I do think Brand is genuine but a little politically naive. His role and audience is those who are attracted to his style and anarchic wit, and he is using his celebrity to inform them and spark interest in further change. He is not to all tastes, but did come up the hard way, not a one-percenter at all.
Karen | 19 June 2015


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