Branson is a four-part docuseries, directed by Chris Smith, about the life of Virgin Group co-founder Richard Branson. The show starts on June 25, 2021, sixteen days before he’s scheduled to go into space on his Virgin Galactic rocket plane, the Unity. In the first shots of the series, Branson is talking to Smith as if something went wrong and he didn’t make it back; at that thought, Branson gets emotional and needs more than one break. But then the series goes from there to examine the billionaire’s life and his many, many adventures.
BRANSON: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: Richard Branson opens a patio door at his sprawling Necker Island home, then sits down in front of a camera.
The Gist: The docuseries sprawls out from Branson’s emotional words, going back and forth in time as the billionaire and his friends, family and business associates reflect on the adventurer, environmentalist and business mogul’s very packed life.
Branson dropped out of school at 16, in 1966, and started a Student magazine in 1968; it was one of the only British magazines geared towards teens and college students, and it was a well-regarded magazine with a peak circulation of 100,000 copies per issue. To help fund the magazine, he and business partner Nik Powell started to sell records by mail order for a discount, which eventually morphed into Virgin Records stores by 1971.
From there, the Virgin Records label was created, with its first hit being Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, which was famously used in The Exorcist. The label grew throughout the ’70s, introducing the world to The Sex Pistols. The episode also discusses the recording studios Branson built that attracted rock legends like Frank Zappa, Paul McCartney and The Rolling Stones, how he bought Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands, some of the natural disasters that has caused him to rebuild, how the record label took off in the ’80s, and the beginnings of Virgin Atlantic, an airline even his closest allies thought would bankrupt him.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Branson is more or less pure biography, along the lines of Val or something like Diego Maradonna.
Our Take: Because Richard Branson has had such a fascinating life, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the retelling of it during Branson. While he hasn’t exactly gotten away unscathed from a publicity standpoint, Branson sure has gotten much more favorable press than fellow billionaires Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and (of course) Elon Musk. But there have been negative implications to how he’s spent his billions, but we get the feeling that those topics won’t rear their head in this series.
If you don’t think there’s enough about Branson’s life to fill four hours, you’re forgetting about all the times he tried to beat sailing and ballooning world records during the ’80s and ’90s. And his businesses are so multi-faceted, going through the entire history of the various Virgin companies takes time. And there are nuggets of information in there that are enlightening, like how the Virgin stores were created out of a need to fund Student magazine, or how Branson and Powell came up with the name Virgin for their growing company.
There seems to be some lip service towards some of the more controversial issues surrounding Branson. We see news clips where people discuss how he’s used various countries’ tax codes to avoid paying personal or corporate taxes, and the anger at how wasteful billionaires and their space toys seems to people who think the money can be used to better society.
For the most part, though, it feels like we’re going to see four hours of mostly praise and maybe some good-natured ribbing from associates who think Branson tells his own story in a more grandiose way than how it actually happened. Your enjoyment of that will depend on how you feel about Branson.
Sex and Skin: None.
Parting Shot: Branson asks the film crew, “Anyone fancy a 5-minute break and a cup of tea?” It’s exhausting talking about yourself for hours, isn’t it?
Sleeper Star: We just couldn’t get over how relaxed Branson’s sister Vanessa was during her interview: she was barefoot and sitting sideways with her legs slung over the arm of her chair.
Most Pilot-y Line: Not much, but the early shots of Branson as a teenager, pre-goatee and with horned-rimmed glasses on, make him look a whole lot like Austin Powers. Wonder if Mike Myers used him as an influence on the character’s look?
Our Call: STREAM IT. If you can get past the fact that Branson is mostly one-sided as a docuseries, you’ll be sucked in by just how Richard Branson built his empire and then used his money to take on some pretty daring adventures.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.