Elon Musk. One minute, I’d never heard of him. The next, he was ubiquitous. Confused by his activities, both public and private, I rather hoped the BBC’s new documentary series about the Mars-loving magnate – it is called, suggestively, The Elon Musk Show – would solve some of the myriad mysteries that swirl about him. Does he, in fact, hail from some far off planet himself? But alas, it was not to be. Marian Mohamed’s films, though highly enjoyable at moments, only make Musk seem the more enigmatic. On screen, his story resembles a (very weird) jigsaw puzzle. The hours pass, the outline of a picture gradually emerging. Ultimately, though, a few crucial pieces turn out to be missing.
This isn’t her fault, of course. It’s quite possible that no one will ever be able to find them. Mohamed presents an impressive roll-call of talking heads: former colleagues, a couple of ex-wives, a parent. But pressed to describe him, they sound as baffled as the next person. His be-quiffed mother, Maye, resplendent in shades of plum, insists that she knew he was “a genius” from the age of three, even if her evidence for this is on the scant side. (Did he disdain Fisher-Price toys? We never find out.) His first wife, Justine Wilson, carefully describes the day when, having arrived at one of their marriage guidance sessions, it was left to the therapist to relay the message that Musk was filing for divorce (an event she can only describe as “one of the more memorable moments” of her life). And then there is Thomas Mueller, a renowned expert in rocket propulsion engineering who worked at Musk’s company SpaceX for 18 years. He has lots of good stories about the months he spent marooned on a remote Pacific island building the ill-fated Falcon 1 (also Falcons 2, 3 and 4), but he tells every one of them in a voice so wobbly you half expect him to burst into tears.
Musk is the richest man who ever lived and yet, famously, he doesn’t own a house. He has ten children, one of whom is called X Æ A-XII, or X for short (a brother to Exa Dark Sideræl Musk, AKA, Y). He would like to stick a greenhouse on Mars, but in the meantime he’s buying Twitter, apparently as an accelerant to “creating X, the everything app” (little X Æ A-XII might want, in the future, to change his name to Brian or Dave or something). The immense wealth came initially from PayPal, sold to eBay in 2002 – he was its largest shareholder – but the other things on this list I’m unable to explain. After watching The Elon Musk Show, I went outside to examine my neighbour’s Tesla, and all I could think was: £45k for a car that looks like Alan Partridge’s Lexus!
Put aside his ambition, daring and Stakhanovite work ethic, and there’s something disturbingly boyish about Musk: the sense of a clock stopped at the age of 15. After meeting her in a London nightclub, he invited Talulah Riley, the actor who became his second wife, up to his hotel room to watch rocket videos. Apparently, this was not a euphemism. In one shot of him at work, we find him sitting in front of the kind of poster you might find on the wall of the physics lab in a secondary school. It is titled “Rockets of the World”. In another scene, he boogies in his chinos, like a toddler who’s just heard Steps for the very first time.
After a while, you begin to feel, rightly or wrongly, that his success is almost accidental: an expensive fluke. You wonder if his entire empire will one day crash around him (it nearly did during the development of the Tesla). It is all so…unfathomable. But still, this series is worth your attention. The footage of the early Falcon launches in particular is transfixing, the seconds ticking by, the massed ranks of technicians in headsets wondering if their crazy, macho projectile will finally go into orbit, and if it doesn’t, what Musk will say or do (his T-shirt and shorts are no disguise at all for his impending frustration). The whole thing is vaguely Citizen Kane-ish, except that it comes with no Xanadu, the only home we catch sight of being as bland as a hotel. Mohamed’s films may not tell us all that we want to know about Musk, but about a certain kind of entrepreneurship in the 21st century, they are encyclopaedic: a dictionary of moneyed nothingness that fascinates and alarms in almost equal measure.
This article appears in the 12 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Will Putin go Nuclear?