Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Aggressive Branding

First time I saw this guy, Russell Brand, was in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a humorous movie featuring several of my current favorite comedy gang (Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill, Jason Siegel, with the always easy on the eyes Mila Kunis and Kristen Bell), and I thought he was a pretty flamboyant and somewhat weird looking character. He had a longish face, that, at first, reminded me of that guy from that Cher movie, where he’s like weird looking and whatnot. Ok, no really very eloquently put, but you probably remember it. It was called Mask, I believe, and it was somewhat decent. That kid in that movie, is who Russell reminded me of, only with a weird looking beard. That this character Russell played in Forgetting Sarah Marshall was essentially a caricature of himself, was only later to become apparent to me. He had amusing bits, but was, for me, altogether forgettable.

Next time he popped up, was in association with his marriage toKaty Perry. I wouldn’t consider myself a close follower of celebrity gossip and news, but I am a child of the internet, and as such I do get around the web, and I do hear and read things. I read IMDb.com quite a bit, and, I’m a little saddened to say, larger and larger parts of that site concerns itself with gossip and half-assed newsbits churned out by wannabe journalists from wannabe glitter mags. But I digress. I absorb and discard information, and I’m not too high and mighty to peruse a little celeb gossip, if I happen to stumble on it. Let’s say I'm a passive celebrity aficionado. If it’s in front of me, I’ll absorb it. If not, I might not know about it at all. In any case, he got married to Katy Perry, and even with my limited knowledge of her (limited as in I knew who she was, and that she by and largely markets herself as a quasi-innocent sex symbol, with a killer body), I remember thinking something along the lines of ‘what in the…’

The Brandster

As with so many celebrity marriages, it did not stand the old test of time. Go figure. Russell passed in and out of my peripheral consciousness, turning in a less forgettable performance as a less caricatured version of himself in Get him to the Greek, also featuring aforementioned comedians. He was still flamboyant, extrovert in an excessive degree and generally all over the place, which are qualities I rarely find enticing at all. However, and I guess this was a random way of getting to the point, on a flight home from Hong Kong, I sat next to a girl/lady/woman/person of the female persuasion, who was reading what appeared to be Russell Brand’s biography. Autobiography even. And against pretty much all odds, I struck up a conversation with said person of the contradictory gender, regarding her interest in Russell Brand, and her view of him. It wasn’t like we had in depth conversations for hours and hours, leaving me enlightened and exasperated. But it did kindle my interest in the man somewhat, and I guess you can say the preconception I had (prejudice perhaps?) was largely based on, as I guess most prejudices are, my immediate impression of the spotlight persona, and not so much based on my knowledge of him as an actual human being.

At this point, I’d like to tell you guys, that I rushed home to research Mr. Brand, looking to form an educated opinion based on a plethora of information. I’d like to tell you that, but I just bought these pants, and if they caught fire, it'd be money wasted. Instead, I passively let my view of Russell Brand simmer in the intellectual stewpot that is my brain, slowly, but ultimately surely, gathering bits of information, watching clips, seeing interviews and reading a little background stuff.  And it all culminated recently, when I found, upon seeing Brand in whatever context I happened to see him, that I quite enjoyed listening to him, that I found what he had to say quite interesting, and that I felt good about myself, for seeing past the glitter and glam, and realizing there was an extremely interesting human being beneath it. But it wasn't until I watched an interview with Russell Brand (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3YR4CseY9pk) that really floored me, that I stood up and took proper notice. Political journalist veteran Jeremy Paxman interviews an effervescent Brand who shoots off a glorious mix of political comedic sentiments, that seem aimed at his lighter hearted (headed?) followers, but as the interview progresses, it becomes more and more apparent that Brand has both valid views and points, and the passion, and more importantly, the intellectual capacity to back it. The last three to four minutes of this 11 minute clip feature a Brand demonstrating just why he was indeed asked to edit a political magazine (as Paxman explains at the beginning of the clip), and why indeed he should be taken seriously. Whether intentional by Paxman or not, he brought out the more serious side of Brand, and I guess it was at this point, that I determined I was a big fan of Russell's. He held some of the ideas that I myself would, had I been braver and/or more charismatic and/or more intelligent, be advocating publicly, or even campaigning for.

So with all that in mind, it wasn’t a tough decision for me to go see Brand’s one man show when it came to town yesterday. Usually I see these types of arrangements the day after they happen, and can only curse myself for not staying more in touch with current going cultural goings on. But this show I noticed 6 months ago. And I had managed to keep it in mind, up until yesterday, when I finally bought my ticket mere hours before the show kicked off. I knew from way back, that I'd like to go. But as always with these things, shelling out the money is a point of internal conflict. And in my particular case, going out makes me slightly uncomfortable which is a problem with these sorts of arrangements. But I was determined to see what he had to say. Brand is, obviously, a comedian first, and a socio-political commentator second. And I was, of course, aware of the flamboyant extrovert part of his persona, that I didn’t necessarily enjoy as much, even if I had warmed considerably to it the past year or two. With that in mind, I did hope for a show that was funny but more importantly, intellectually stimulating. And I got precisely that.

Doors opened at 7pm, and the show was slated to start at 8. I showed up at 8, because what would I be doing by myself out there for an hour anyway? I checked my coat, bypassed the crowded bars, and headed straight to the theater. It was pitch black in there, and for a fleeting second I thought he had actually gone on stage at the exact moment the show was said to start – unprecedented. Thankfully it wasn’t him, but a guy calling himself Mr. G. Now Mr. G. was a poet of sorts, who spoke with a slight northern London accent. He had some amusing bits, and did two of his poems, both of which had a few profound bits, and were essentially what I’d call spoken word a capella rap (another favorite in that genre is Scroobius Pip, who you shouldn’t wait two seconds in checking out). My seat was quick far back, and there was a dude with a big head in front of me. So often the way, isn’t it? Meanwhile Mr. G. did his thing, left the stage, and the lights came on. Thus began 20 minutes or so, of alternate classic tunes and gangster rap, that I couldn’t figure out if was planned or was just how this particular venue got down. People were milling about like there was no tomorrow, and I was, as I usually am, annoyed by, what appeared to be, the same 10-15 people constantly getting up and sitting down again after a brief stroll. Find your seat, sit the fuck down, do not move until the show is over, or massive flames are licking up your pants. Lots of people went to refresh their beers, which of course is fine, but it seemed like lots of people got up just to be seen getting up. Pointless. But oh well. T-Rex – Children of the Revolution started playing, and since it’s an old favorite of mine, I resigned myself to enjoy that track. It was cut short, though, since the time had come for the actual show to begin.

And begin it did. The suite from Peer Gynt (slow start, progressing rapidly to a furious, and super awesome, crescendo) played, with images starting from single cells dividing (mimicking the origin of life), and up through the history of our species (it reminded me a lot of the Right Here Right Now video with Fatboy Slim). Peer Gynt playing over speedy sequences of pictures from and of significant events and personas of the last two-three centuries had a mesmerizing effect, and inspired the feeling of something awesome about to happen. Right at the end of the crescendo, Russell Brand took to the stage, received by a jubilant crowd. His very resignant “Hello” in that particular accent of his, provided an amusing anticlimax to the massive build up. And it effectively kicked off the next hour and fifty minutes of mostly highs and some lows.

Russell has this downplayed self-aware ultra-narcissistic humility that is really obnoxious at first, then obnoxiously charming after a bit. It’s impossible not to get carried away by his voice (I think), whether it’s that characteristic working/lower class Essex accent he utilizes so well or how he manages to perfectly balance his talk with equal amounts of highly intellectual keenly worded observations and infantile gutter humor, mainly focused on but not limited to genitalia and sexual innuendo.

Now, I’m an open minded fellow, and, while not of the homosexual persuasion, I find myself able to, I think with a relatively astute sense of observation, appreciate the male form and the inherent beauty it possesses. Russell Brand is not an ugly man at all. Perhaps a bit on the skinny side. And I always found his beard looking a little weird. My earlier references to him looking like that kid from Mask was, in hindsight, a bit crude. But I can understand why so many people find him so appealing. So when he got on the stage, and started moving around a bit (he opened with a quick tour around the aisles, checking out people and talking to a few), and particularly when he dropped his cardigan, there were plenty of cat calls from the crowd. Especially the female part, I guess. I take it he is used to that sort of thing, however, as it didn’t seem to phase him. This last paragraph has no real relevance, except to establish, that Russell Brand was well liked from the word go. 

The show, called Messiah Complex, turned out to deal with equal parts rehashing of, and deprecation of Brand’s own background in anecdotes, and the socio-political commentary that I so much looked forward to. As Brand himself said “Yes, this show also includes clever bits! Don’t worry, I have had people check them out for me, it is ok”. And it did have clever bits. In abundance. For me, he was preaching to the choir. Through laughs and colorful language, Brand conveyed several interesting and potent points: The world is going down the shitter, and the current political gallery isn’t helping. The corporations aren’t helping. He put emphasis on a few big personalities, Gandhi, Che, Malcolm X and Jesus, drawing parallels between them and himself. And as with himself, he also took time to illustrate the negative aspects of these 4 big names, the dark side of the coin. Refreshing, to say the least. I won't go into too much detail with this, both because I'd be spoiling the show, and because I don't think I am able to adequately put words to my thoughts and memories of it all, and do it justice. 

The show moved on smoothly, never halting unnecessarily, never spinning out of control. It was, as people have described Monty Python on more than one occasion, controlled chaos, with Brand straying off on wild anecdotes, that still ended up tying in perfectly with his underlying narrative. I mean, obviously it is all planned and rehearsed, but the fluid way in which he pulled it off, made it seem like he really just happened to pass by a stage and an audience one night, but also just happened to have a really well formed and very explicit view on the current state of the world. His audacity seemed to enchant the crowd, whether you were there for just the cock'n'balls jokes, or because you wanted to find out if Brand really had a lot more to offer than meets the eye. He finished off the show with an artistic flourish that I sensed coming, but only barely had time to process, before it was exposed for us all to enjoy. At this point the crowd went absolutely ballistic, and it was impossible not to get carried away. Everybody got up and cheered wildly, as Brand was bathed in backlight, on stage, casting a glowy halo around a black fa├žade. I couldn’t help but smile at the excellence I had just witnessed.

I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to be without this special feeling of magnetism I had just experienced. I went and got my jacket real fast, beating the crowd (I have years of practice when it comes to the little tricks behind avoiding crowds), and snuck my way back into the theater, to absorb the last fleeting moments of greatness. Brand was sitting on the edge of the stage, letting the crowd get up to him for handshakes, hugs, kisses, pictures, autographs or, I suspect knowing Brand, pretty much whatever else you’d feel like doing. He seemed like an extremely accessible person, through all the flamboyance and glitter – just a kid from a rough background, who has made it big, but has a hard time with what making it big really means. I considered for a brief moment going down there to.. I don’t know. Shake the man’s hand? Give him a hug? I decided against it for several reasons. One thing was the crowd. I am not good with crowds. Another thing was the pointlessness of me going there to shake a guy’s hand. Show my appreciation for his performance? Yeah, I guess. But he’d go on being perfectly happy without me doing it. Afterall, I’m just another face in the crowd. I contented myself with a resigned smile, and writing this blog entry, that only vaguely convey the very exceptional feeling I had, after watching a one man show with Russell Brand. 

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