“Hello everybody. This is Mrs. Russell Brand.”
Before they announced their impending divorce last week, one had expected to hear Katy Perry say this toward the end of her California Dreams tour, tears coursing down her face.
For a while, Perry and Brand, married just 14 months and separated by almost 10 years (she is 27, he is 36) were looking more and more like the Blodgett-Maines in A Star Is Born: like a washed-out star watching his ingénue wife get bigger each day.
When Brand started dating Perry, he was in the middle of his crossover, from established English success – as a comic, writer, actor and radio personality/provocateur (and, three years in a row, the Sun’s Shagger of the Year) – to larger, more desirable, American fame.
More desirable because of the money and vastness of the fame. And because British popularity is so insular, it is barely possible to explain: Consider Brand’s notorious prank calls with Jonathan Ross to actor Andrew Sachs on BBC Radio 2 back in 2008. It’s impossible to say if the calls are funny, given the anguish involved in establishing the back-story: Who called who? Why? What does “barmy” mean?
Brand displayed his ambiguous yearning for super-stardom in 2007’s Russell Brand On the Road, a BBC Four documentary that follows the comic on a pilgrimage after Kerouac’s journey in On the Road.
The documentary is irreverent and funny, yet awkward. Brand can’t seem to manage the tension between his actual intellectual respect for the writer and his constant, antic desire to mock everything and everyone.
By the time Brand was dancing on Kerouac’s grave in the series, though, he had released his greatly successful memoir My Booky Wook – an exceptionally candid account of his life that spares no detail of his heroin addiction (he has been clean for nine years), sexual profligacy and what is clearly monstrous, well-managed depression.
And he was poised, in 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, to play Aldous Snow, the absurd, charismatic rock star who may as well be Brand playing, and parodying, himself.
The role brought him real fame, and, after a number of mini-scandals (including his inane and appalling reference to George W. Bush on the MTV Awards as a “retarded cowboy fella”), a meeting with Katy Perry.
They met in 2009 when she filmed a scene (that was cut) for Get Him to the Greek, an Aldous Snow-only film, which delves more deeply into the character’s addiction and despair.
The movie did well, but Brand was overlooked critically: The scene in which, with a bloody, broken arm, he confesses to the walking punchline Jonah Hill that he is frightened and “lonely” is as wrenching as Bill Murray’s similar revelation – while smoking two cigarettes and drinking from a flask in a hospital elevator – in Rushmore.
And Brand’s willingness, through Aldous Snow, to take his charm away, layer by layer, is an intriguing and powerful striptease that shows us what charm is – that it is the most potent when used by dissembling, cruel and broken people.
This role should have moved him forward fast. And Katy Perry, then a still-rising pop star should have stayed still, sitting in fields of flowers and marvelling about girl-kissing and gay-jerk boyfriends.
But even as they moved across the Ranthambore tiger-sanctuary grounds on gaudy elephants on their wedding day in Rajasthan in October of 2010, the tides were turning.
Brand’s major projects that year were a remake of Arthur and the release of Booky Wook 2: This Time It’s Personal. Perry released Teenage Dream, her third record. The rest is history as directed by George Cukor (or Frank Pierson, should you prefer the Streisand/Kristofferson version).
Brand’s poorly written book flopped, as did his film. The reviews were so cruel as to smack of vindictiveness: Was the Brit already wearing out his welcome?
Meanwhile Teenage Dream, a loud, confectionery, conceptually brilliant firework (Perry’s makes canny use of other artists and sounds and pinpoints her teen-girl demographics’ likes, dislikes, fears and dreams) continues to break records and soar.
Perry’s gospel roots inform her music perfectly. Her message, that the abject, the “waste[s]of space” are “original,” and loaded with possibilities, that life is fun and funny, is simple, yes, but redemptive and unabashedly positive.
After news of the divorce broke, sexist speculation started to run toward Perry (like Jennifer Aniston) choosing her career over a family.
That doesn’t sound right. Much more like Lady Diana, Perry became too big for Brand, or maybe, too young and happy.
He has been seen brooding in dark glasses; she has been seen in Hawaii, playing in the sea.
Both seem happy, in their way. And as distant, looking back, as the waning moon and the rising sun.
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