The Emperor’s New Clothes

June 20, 2015
Russell Brand in 'The Emperor's New Clothes' (2015)
Russell Brand in 'The Emperor's New Clothes' (2015)

This is a particularly strong period for documentaries, which are filling the gap left by the decline of quality investigative journalism in the print media. There are as many different styles of documentary as there are filmmakers, but anyone who feels Alex Gibney is lacking objectivity, should take a look at The Emperor’s New Clothes, in which director, Michael Winterbottom, provides a platform for comedian Russell Brand to tell us about the evils of social inequality.

To get the most out of this film it helps to have seen Ondi Timoner’s documentary, Brand: A Second Coming, which provides an in-depth profile of this entertainer-turned-activist. Before watching these films I thought Russell Brand was a prat, now I’m convinced he’s an unusually interesting prat.

The Timoner film became a battle between the director and her subject over how Brand was to be portrayed. It seems this fearless, outspoken crusader was sensitive about his private life, notably his relations with his parents and his failed marriage to pop star, Katy Perry. He needn’t have worried because Timoner’s profile tends to humanise Brand, making us see a courageous, sensitive figure beneath the brash persona.

If one can look beyond Brand’s narcissism and vulgarity, he emerges as one of the few public figures with a genuine concern about the state of the world and a desire to do something about it by raising people’s consciousness. This is apparent in the Timoner film, but in The Emperor’s New Clothes, Brand is able to shape the style and content in order to send a clear political message.

It’s still a personality-driven presentation. Brand gives us the dope on inequality, putting it in simple language that uneducated, working class types should be able to understand. He knows we’ve heard it all before. Even Hans Christian Anderson’s fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes, is a cliché in an age in which spin has triumphed over substance.

Brand establishes his own plebeian credentials by taking us back to his dismal home town, of Greys, Essex, whose drabness has been ornamented in recent years by an infestation of betting shops and cash converters. He goes back to his old school, where he asks the kids: “Is it fair that a tiny number of people have so much, while the vast majority have so little?”

“Nooooo!” they shout, in scenes that are too ham-fisted for comfort. It’s just as awkward when Brand fronts up at the doors of the banks, asking to speak to the CEOs who have pocketed astronomical salaries and bonuses after dragging the entire economy into the GFC. It is, however, pretty funny to see him driving around in a truck with pictures of prominent bankers on the side, announcing through a megaphone: “If you see any of these men do not attempt to approach them. They’re bastards!”

It’s no joke that Brand is becoming a political figurehead of outlandish proportions. He has 10 million followers on Twitter, and more than a million subscribers for his YouTube media commentary, The Trews. His book, Revolution, became an instant best-seller.

Beyond all the clowning and bluster, Brand has hit upon a topic of the greatest urgency, and has the statistics he needs to make a case. Inequality may pose a bigger threat to western civilisation than climate change or any other apocalyptic scenario. It’s not explosive, it represents a slow corrosion of human decency; an institutionalisation of greed; an unofficial collusion between governments and big corporations. At the bottom of the heap there is a growing underclass of desperate people with no hope and nothing to lose.

Alex Gibney told me last week he knows a lot of wealthy people in the United States who are worried that a new version of the French Revolution is brewing. If and when that occurs, expect Russell Brand to be first on the barricades.

The Emperor’s New Clothes
Written and directed by Michael Winterbottom
Starring Russell Brand
UK/USA/France, rated M, 107 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 20th June, 2015.