Robbie Williams: Monkey business, metaverse and my Dubai residency dreams

The British singer, set to play Abu Dhabi next week, talks about opening a UAE hotel, his biopic and finally embracing technology

Robbie Williams at the New Year's Eve gala at Atlantis, The Palm in 2021. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Powered by automated translation

The world seemingly knows that Robbie Williams is up to some "monkey business" in his coming biopic Better Man, but he can't talk about it.

Speaking to The National ahead of his Etihad Arena concert in Abu Dhabi, the British popstar is slightly frustrated with staying silent in response to reports that a computer-generated monkey will portray him in the film, which is in production.

"It seems it's the worst kept secret and it has been impressed upon me not to mention the monkey," Williams tells The National.

"Well everybody knows about the monkey and I am at the forefront of these interviews, so what am I supposed to do?"

Williams says this with a little tongue-in-cheek, but there is no hiding the serious ambition of the film.

Directed by Michael Gracey, the Australian filmmaker behind The Greatest Showman, Better Man will cover Williams's three-decade career from his time with the boy band Take That to his solo stardom.

Principal photography began last year in Sydney where concert footage was taken from his Australian tour. Williams says the film will take a more satirical approach as it mirrors the nature of his career.

He describes the success as similar to the whimsical story of the fictional character Forrest Gump, played by Tom Hanks in the 1994 Oscar-winning movie.

"I am incredibly ambitious and that still hasn't waned now that I am older," he adds. "That hasn't gone anywhere and the opportunities keep presenting themselves to me.

"The universe has gifted me so much and because of that I'm still ambitious, I am still competitive."

This explains the flurry of new projects Williams is working on as he celebrates the 25th anniversary of his solo career.

In addition to Better Man, he is the subject of a self-titled and four-part Netflix documentary set to be released on November 8. Also announced is a metaverse concert in which Williams will perform in a virtual reality city as part of a partnership with the British online platform LightCycle.

With the date still to be announced, Williams, 49, doesn’t know what to expect from the metaverse gig.

But he is tickled by the notion of celebrating his history in a futuristic setting and admits his embrace of technology came later than most of his peers.

“I've always been confused with social media and now all of a sudden I've caught up,” he says. "It's taken me 15 years, but I'm now here and I am totally involved in social media on a day-to-day basis.

“The metaverse is incredibly interesting to me, where it once wasn't. So I'm here, middle-aged guy, trying things out, kicking the whips on this thing. So let's see.”

One thing we can all be sure of is the singer should deliver a crowd-pleasing show in person in Abu Dhabi.

In addition to a hit-laden setlist ranging from gorgeous ballads Angels and Feel to the storming Kids and Let Me Entertain You, Williams has an affable demeanour on stage and peppers his shows with quirky stories and banter.

While it all feels effortless, he says everything on stage has been refined and calculated for the best results.

“I'm an entertainer and everything I do is about trying to elicit the best moment I can give to the people that have paid good money to come and see me,” he says.

“I'm never really in the moment. I'm always a few seconds ahead of the audience figuring out what I'm going to do next as well as desperately trying to sing in key.

“So it's not a communal thing for me. Instead, I'm trying to elicit a communal feeling from the audience. What I am thinking about is entertainment.”

This will be Williams's fifth concert in the UAE, having made his first appearance in 2006 in Dubai's Nad Al Sheba Racecourse while his most recent stopover was a lavish 2021 New Year's Eve show at Atlantis, The Palm.

Williams hopes all those experiences will eventually pay off in an ambitious goal to build his own hotel, complete with a residency show. He has floated the idea in interviews for more than a year, including one with The National last December, revealing his desire to be an ambassador of entertainment for Dubai "because I can see what it is and what it can become".

So, can visitors expect to stay in the funky Rock DJ hotel suite or dine by the elegant Millennium pool anytime soon?

Not so fast, Williams suggests, but some discussions are under way.

"There have been some advancements from when I first started talking about it and trying to manifest it into reality," he says. "I have always looked for opportunities, whether it's with entertainment or songs or when I do interviews to present myself in a certain way.

“And UAE is a land of opportunity and it just fits my ethos as a whole.”

Robbie Williams performs on Wednesday at Etihad Arena, Abu Dhabi. Doors open at 7.30pm; from Dh325;

Updated: October 14, 2023, 3:09 AM