Louise Guthrie reviews Russell Brands new film....
“Did you put Freddie Mercury under this kind of pressure?” says Brand, in response to Brian May’s question: “What do you want us to do?”, straight after the first screening of The Emperor’s New Clothes at the Hackney Picturehouse on Tues 21st April.
Both men have their own ideas on putting right the wrongs. The freshly aired documentary film (nicely timed for the run-up to the election) ended neatly with a cry for higher taxes on the wealthy, a call to crank up inheritance tax, pin down some wayward bankers (if you can ever get hold of them, that is), abolish tuition fees, and introduce rent regulations. Oh, and how about radically increasing the minimum wage, and getting companies to reduce the gap between the highest and lowest earners. But – ‘To Vote, or Not to Vote’ - is that really the question? Well is it, Russell?
But this isn’t all about Russell Brand (or even Brian May). Big Hair (or not), these guys are simply here to help amplify the issues. We must all take a stand together.
This documentary doesn’t tell us anything we haven’t already heard in terms of facts and figures. But it blows the lid wide open on real-term ‘austerity’ impact since the 2008 financial crash; the cut-backs, closures, and the government’s oh-so-unsubtle dismantling of the welfare state. We know the world's wealthiest 80 people, who between them control as much wealth as the poorest half of the global population (you know - that little 3.5 billion…), aren't exactly renowned for travelling everywhere by bus. But if they every fancy slumming it for a change, we could squeeze them all into a couple of road vehicles, just for the sheer and utter hell of it. Winterbottom does just that, with a clever cinematic stunt that carefully conceals the living breathing complexions of ordinary hard-working folk behind limp and pallid cardboard masks of the ludicrously wealthy 80 (isn’t that one Rupert Murdoch, could that be Steve Jobs’ widow, and that one has to be Bill Gates), as they park their “privileged” bums on mini-bus-seats and go for a ride. (If it all sounds a bit ridiculous, well, that’s because it is..)
Hold on to your seats, this could get a bit bumpy……
The documentary opens with some essentially farcical pageantry parading its way through the City of London (ooh, look the Lord Mayor’s Show), which provides a splendidly colourful, but ultimately hollow, backdrop to Brand’s reading of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tale of deception, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. But this façade of pomp and colour swiftly dissipates to reveal the grim reality and drab town-centre of Grays in Essex, from where the comic hails. As he shows us, life is no fairy-tale for those still entrenched in the ‘Grays’ of this world.
The film gathers momentum as Brand takes to the streets of London to protest outside the likes of Topshop and Vodafone. It zooms right in sideways on poor conditions endured by workers in the Chinese factories which make Apple products. Nice work if you can get it. Just don’t fall asleep on the job, will you.
Brand and Winterbottom’s ricochet ride up and down the Richter scale of inequality transcends mere numbers, and the film never falls anything short of both being both verbally and visually engrossing and, at times, emotionally engaging.
We follow Brand as he swash-buckles his way through banking quarters blasting out through a megaphone from the side of a van bearing “Shop a Banker” placards. He ruffles a few feathers here and there, and raises some eyebrows on the street. He runs up against inevitable opposition at the hallowed portals of Faux-Palaces of Finance (like Lloyds and RBS – so just where is that Fred Goodwin feller?) and is, (predictably), refused an audience with the Mysterious Kings of the City. But Russell makes one or two rule-enforcing minions laugh against their better judgement, even as they bar his way at the base of the Crystal Towers they guard so diligently for their paymasters. Let’s face it, their pay is probably a joke anyway. If they don’t laugh, they might end up crying.
So Brand scales that big locked iron-gate to (Daily Mail owner) Lord Rothermere’s house, purely to suggest the man might like to start paying his taxes for a change.
The easy accessibility of this noisy roller-coaster of a documentary-ride from grey old Grays right through the bright financial districts of London and New York (picking up a few benevolent financial experts on the way to give us a bit more insight) lies in Brand and Winterbottom’s grasping of those intangible (but damning), figures and bringing them into sharp relief against the actual (human) cost of austerity.
We all gave banks £141 billion (that’s £4000 per tax-payer), but the taxes paid by the rich have been cut. Vat was 8% in 1979, so now we’re paying 20%. We all know the numbers.
But it’s Brand’s emotive encounters with vulnerable individuals who woke up suddenly one day to find themselves being hammered (real hard) by the bedroom tax (ouch), his passionate engagement with tenants facing eviction, and his heart-to-hearts with debt-saddled students, that showcase the real-life struggles buried beneath those impersonal (yet galling) statistics.
The “figures” emerge and come to life, and, as it turns out, their lives are far from easy.
This film is delicately interspersed with some sentimental archive footage, harking back to a gentler bygone era when post-war austerity seemed to somehow pan out better despite the old financial instability.
But back to the starkness of the here-and-now: No-one can fail to be affected by the plight of the girl with cerebral palsy that Russell pals up with en route. As if struggling with basic daily routine is not enough, this frail but plucky human soul is now being forced to contemplate just how exactly she is going to maintain her life’s dignity as well as a modicum of real purpose in the wake of the Independent Living Fund. (For a start, by giving Russell a playful little kick or two….it’s not actually going to make things any worse, is it?)
Brand’s energetic and enquiring public persona weaves the thread that runs tightly throughout the film, holding not only our attention, but neatly tying up Winterbottom’s skilful juxtaposing of the facelessly omnipresent bank chiefs with the all-too revealing countenances of those who have to tell it like it really is out there past the long and murky shadows cast by impenetrable cut-glass spires and steel turrets of wealth.
Fortunately, Russell’s common touch and gentle humour bring a sliver of light (relief) to some particularly dark situations. When a relatively young, but visibly unwell, woman suffering under austerity cuts tells Russell she “has the bones of a 90-year-old woman”, he quips that that old lady might well be wanting them back then…
Michael Winterbottom’s insertion of footage showing David Cameron holding forth on the importance of delivering swift justice, cleverly makes the PM’s pontifications on ‘making the punishment fit the crime’ sound like they (might just) apply to the wilful actions of reckless bankers. But we all know what our Premier really wants is some front-doors breaking down, so that those who lifted stuff including (shock) bottled water and (horror) cartons of juice during the 2011 summer riots can do a decent stretch inside - as soon as possible, please.
But, hang on, before we leave behind those lofty strongholds of the City (not that we were properly allowed in them, were we, but at least we can give them a wide berth if we so desire), let’s take a quick look at the long hours of those whose day-to-day mission is to go and buff and shine those Glass Monuments-to-Greed right up to nothing less than glistening perfection.
Let’s stop and take a more than just a passing glance at the relentless routine endured by these ephemeral “Cleaning Fairies” of the City, as they maintain that polished state of exterior-perfection so taken for granted by those at the top of the Ivory Towers, in exchange for little more than a pittance for pay.
While banking overlords continue to rake more in gratuitous wealth than they could possibly need or use in one mortal life-time, we witness cleaning staff who can barely afford their journey to work start their pilgrimage at 5 a.m.
“We are all in this together” declares George Osborne (repeatedly). But are we really? Well most of us are, actually.
So, on Saturday 20 June 2015, let’s all assemble in the heart of the City of London.
Join the People’s Assembly in a major national demonstration to send a clear message to the new government – to End Austerity Now!