Finding out what celebrities were like before they were successful can be fascinating – or it can just be a biography of a person when they were still ordinary. The Elon Musk Show (BBC Two) begins with the latter.
Two subsequent episodes ought to deal with the real Elon Musk, which is to say the increasingly unreal public figure, who has become a brand more recognisable than any of his companies, matching his unprecedented wealth with outlandish behaviour. Sure, this account of his early days paints him as a goofy loner, but his eccentricity only properly manifests in his prowling, Trump-like gait. There’s no harbinger of the man who will one day release a SoundCloud jam called RIP Harambe, dangerously minimise Covid, attempt to send a special submarine to rescue a football team trapped in a cave, name a child X Æ A-12 and, just in the last week, send Kanye West a supportive tweet after the rapper’s antisemitic Instagram meltdown. “Fame is not something that agrees with him,” a former colleague accurately deadpans, as a hopefully more exciting second instalment is previewed at the end of the opening hour.
For now, The Elon Musk Show tries to establish whether he is driven, a genius or a driven genius. His mother, Maye Musk, talks up her boy’s mathematical aptitude, but it is hard to heed her, and not just because of the 74-year-old model’s distractingly fabulous grey quiff and candy-pink silk polo neck. Musk doesn’t appear to have inherited that otherworldly flamboyance, either sartorially, or in his intellect. As we travel back to the clunky, ugly 90s, we hear of a young Musk trying to get his online city directory Zip2 off the ground through sheer hard work, sleeping under his desk after late nights in the office and angrily asking why so few of his employees are present as he takes a 9pm tour of the cubicles. He is a grafter who won’t accept failure, not a visionary. He then pivots into digital banking and becomes, via a brief and tumultuous involvement in a nascent PayPal the documentary almost entirely skips over, a Silicon Valley millionaire who can pursue his dream of running a private-sector rival to Nasa.
But, it’s in the mid-00s, featuring Musk’s oversight of his company SpaceX and its effort to fire a rocket into orbit, running parallel with his investment in and guidance of Tesla as it tries to sell the concept of an electric car to the US, that he faces two make-or-break situations. SpaceX, having undergone an awkward relocation to an uninhabited Pacific island, from where any failed launches can fall harmlessly into the sea, does indeed lose all three of the rockets Musk has budgeted for, their mechanisms blowing up before they can escape the stratosphere. The company scrapes together the components for a fourth and final craft, which makes it into space and wins a $1.6bn contract from Nasa. Tesla, meanwhile, gains plenty of interest for its Roadster sports car, after a successful unveiling featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, but is already struggling to fulfil orders when the 2008 financial crash sends it spiralling. Musk personally invests everything he has in the company, keeping it alive for long enough to become electric motoring’s flagship, and a business that will go on to be so lucrative it makes Musk the world’s richest man.
So, that’s all OK in the end, then. Musk is a poster boy for aspirational capitalism, the success story that could, on a less favourable dice roll, have joined the countless entrepreneurial mavericks who have fallen back to Earth. The programme’s darkest notes come from former senior employees who talk about the cost of Musk making it big, as borne by others. They portray a man on a mission, who is intimidating and overbearing, and, ultimately, likely to use you up and chuck you out. Thomas Mueller, an aerospace engineer who confesses he regrets spending several years on a remote island trying to get rockets into space because it meant losing irreplaceable time with his daughter, marvels at his old boss’s apparent immunity to setbacks: “He just keeps going … he can take the pain of dealing with it constantly.”
Many of those who have assisted Musk as he chases his dreams have not been able to take the pain. But … that’s work. That’s business. If you’re going to dedicate your peak years to sweating 18 hours a day trying to turn a wacky idea into a billion-dollar business, try to make sure you’re the guy who actually gets the billion dollars. What those billions do to Musk, an already kooky man granted disorienting power, is where it potentially gets interesting. Before that point, at least as The Elon Musk Show tells it, Musk is unremarkable.