David Brent: Life on the Road
As I’m sure you’re all aware (and if not – where have you been?) Ricky Gervais’ The Office is a classic and the best British comedy – TV or otherwise – released in the last 20 years. We all know that it’s funny, but Gervais and Merchant’s masterstroke was simply to ask us: why? What is it about someone, or something that is said, that makes us laugh? So they presented us with three comedians: Tim (Martin Freeman), who is intentionally funny and hence wins the girl; Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), who is unintentionally funny and hence the butt of all office jokes; and David Brent, who is unintentionally unfunny and hence doomed to social pariah status.
Gervais and Merchant conclude, through the interplay of these characters, that one of the key ingredients for humour is sadism: Tim endlessly taunts Gareth, and the show itself endlessly taunts David, even if it is in both cases with some affection. Laughing, we are shown, can be an act of cruelty, and it is easy to detect this everywhere in Gervais’ work: the hounding of Karl Pilkington in An Idiot Abroad, the hounding of Christians on his Twitter feed, the hounding of Hollywood A-Listers at the Golden Globes. But that same cruelty can also be turned inwards, in the form of masochism: in Ricky’s best works, The Office and Extras, he is pointing the bullying finger and laughing directly at himself: the part of him that perennially needs to entertain celebrities (like Andy Millman) and work colleagues (like David Brent), yet also yearns to be taken seriously.
So in this film Brent and Gervais both make their bids for artistic credibility: the former through cashing in his pensions in order to go on the road and perform his music and the latter through the continuation of his most critically lauded creation. They do this, quite simply, to itch that desperate need for adulation, which Gervais is too smart not to appreciate that he shares with his fictional alter ego. I have nothing against narcissistic ambition in the arts, as anyone who has read my Kanye piece will know, as it leads to some of our most insightful and provocative entertainments; but a significant level of humour is required to pull it off, which is where this film falls short.
Predictably, many of the jokes stem from Brent’s un-PC outbursts, but these were so excruciating in The Office because he was in a position of power in an environment where decorum was so vitally important, and his employees couldn’t just walk away from him; in the bars and dingy student dives of this film, where Brent is just a pathetic middle-aged man of no meaningful influence, the effect is considerably less shocking. What’s more, as mentioned above, it was the interplay between the big man and Tim and Gareth, and occasionally the loathsome Finchy, that really allowed Brent to shine in the TV series: the supporting cast here fail to exert themselves in the same way as full-fledged comic foils, with their primary purpose being to tell us in interview how much they hate Brent and then, later on in the unconvincing narrative arc, how much they ‘actually quite like him’.
Another gripe I have with this film, that critically limits its comedic potential, is the music, so crucial to any mock-rockumentary: Gervais wants it both ways, to indulge his latent dreams of being a rock star and to make us giggle at the ridiculousness of such an idea, which means a shallow compromise: bland, overly polished performances that are neither toe-tappingly good nor amusingly awful. They sound like over-produced studio concoctions, which they are, and hence don’t suit the spontaneous, on-the-road settings of the film. Worse, much worse, is that the words are rarely as memorably embarrassing as they should be. The only classic here is ‘Equality Street’, which offers up this sage piece of advice: ‘Dwarfs aren’t babies/You can’t just pick ’em up’. Many thanks to the Brentmeister for those penetrating words of wisdom.
This is yet another disappointment then, in a summer that’s been chock full of ’em. There are a few touching moments at the end, the finest in the film, in which Brent struggles to come to terms with his own mediocrity. Gervais has been suffering from the same affliction recently, and I just hope that he will be able to overcome it.
Pure & Simple – Dolly Parton
Hats off to David Brent, who in a rare moment of clarity acknowledged that Dolly Parton was more than just a pair of tits. People usually take a look at her curvaceous figure and smash hit ‘9 to 5’ and dismiss her as a naff novelty, but at her height in the 70s she was so much more than that. She was a truly terrific singer and songwriter, whose tremulous love ballads and ballsy sex sagas (check out the perverse ‘Traveling Man’ if you don’t believe me) made her a deserved star of the country music scene. Listen to her subtle, spare ‘I Will Always Love You’ and I promise you will never be able to stomach the Houston monstrosity ever again. Pure and simple was the name of the game, before she sacrificed both virtues for a bid at crossover pop success in the 80s and 90s, which due to her quirkiness and fragile voice she was never ideally suited for (even though it made her fortune). Yet here she promises a return to the Pure & Simple aesthetic once again.
A bit of a half-assed one in all honesty: whilst the tracks are mostly acoustic, centring around gently stummed guitars and mandolins (an instrument I’m always a sucker for), Dolly just can’t resist occasionally throwing in some heavenly backup singers and sentimental violas to yank at the heartstrings and augment the already treacly lyrics. Almost every song here is about love, which is fine – Dolly is celebrating her 50th wedding anniversary this year, and boy do we need documentation of such marital success in this day and age. But we really don’t need moments like these, saccharine to the extent of potential danger to diabetics: ‘Trouble clouds may fill our skies/It might even rain awhile/But the rain will go away/There’s always a brighter day’. That’s from a woman who once penned the ingenious metaphors of ‘The Bargain Store’ and ‘Coat of Many Colors’.
Still, there are always the sex songs, which for a 70 year old are remarkably vigorous: ‘It’s just a disgrace/These thoughts that I think!’ she reveals about her husband in a song where she’s ‘Head Over Heels’ in lust rather than love. In another she insists that she’s 16 – in mind, attitude, and sexual appetite, if not in age. It’s no accident that these two tracks are also the best musically, because they compel Parton to add some raunchy electric guitar and sing with a zest for life that is less apparent elsewhere. If you think septuagenarians should keep such horniness to themselves, you’ve obviously misunderstood the spirit of rock n’ roll, and I for one applaud it. But the saccharinity of the majority of the tracks bring the unfettered joy of these moments down, and it’s hard not to conclude that the album is merely an an excuse for the Queen of country to get back on the the road again and tour in front of her adoring fans. David Brent at least would understand.