A hypnotic film that turns the documentary format into an oral autobiographical post-mortem on the life of one of Hollywood's greatest actors.
Listen To Me Marlon
In late 2012 saw Love, Marilyn, a documentary about the life of Marilyn Monroe. While so much had already been written about the iconic actress, what made that doc unique was how the narrative was presented. Rather than follow a traditional documentary structure, the actress’ life was instead presented in a series of her own personal writings—and the writings of those who knew her—as read by a parade of modern Hollywood stars.
After successful debuts at both Sundance and New Directors/New Films festival, this week sees the limited release of Listen to Me Marlon, a documentary about another iconic celebrity, Marlon Brando. Like Marilyn’s doc, the story is told in a unique way, but instead of using the voices of others to tell Marlon’s tale, director Stevan Riley uses Brando’s own voice as the narrator.
As lifetime highlight reels go, Listen to Me Marlon does a very good job. Riley covers the actor’s childhood, his relationship with his parents, his studies at The New School under the legendary Stella Adler, his film career (with plenty of clips), his children, his activism, the decline of his career, the rebirth of his career, and the tumult and tragedy that filled so much of his later life. Riley also pivots deftly from subject to subject, routinely veering away from a linear telling but never losing the viewer in the process. He hits key moments in Brando’s past not according to a calendar but when they need to be hit to make the right point about the actor’s life or career. As a bonus, the director is not afraid to return to people from Brando’s past, like his parents or Adler, as the narrative warrants it.
Given the breadth of Brando’s career, his devastating charisma, and his real-life drama, this highlight reel (with its endless trove of remarkable still photographs, movie clips, news footage, and other source audio/video) and the way it is structured would have made for a compelling—or at least entertaining—biography. It’s Riley’s narrative approach that puts the doc on another level, and the opening title card says it all:
“Throughout his lifetime Marlon Brando made hundreds of hours of private audio recordings none of which have been heard by the public until now.”
“Until now.” This is what makes Listen to Me Marlon such a hypnotic film: every narrated word is in Brando’s own voice, culled from tapes and assembled in an incredible marriage of image and voice. But even “narrated word” is misleading because Brando doesn’t truly narrate the film. The late actor reflects and ruminates and espouses and regrets and mourns and more, all through a collection of stream-of-consciousness moments that are paired with perfect visual accompaniment. This is Brando opening up, not reading a script.
Or is it?
Of course he’s not literally reading a script, but there is something to raise an eyebrow about here. Riley, in an effort to present “Brando on Brando” with all of this terrific source material, doesn’t consider that a two-time Oscar winner (Best Actor for both 1954’s On the Waterfront and 1972’s The Godfather) and one of the greatest actors Hollywood has ever produced might just be acting on tape for an audience of one: himself.
He is enamored by his own profession, his place in its history, and his persona. He even takes time to name-check a few actors from 1930s/1940s Hollywood and compare them to breakfast cereal in the sense that the audience knows what it’s going to get with every role (like a box of cereal each morning, the same thing over and over).
Since Brando is not without ego, there’s something to be said for his collection of hours of himself on tape (a collection that includes recordings of self-hypnosis sessions). To what end did he do it? Is part of it a symptom of OCD? Maybe. But he must have considered the tapes would one day be heard, so surely it’s not impossible that Brando might have embellished or dramatized some of his free-form stories. This is never explored, so we are left to take Brando at his word that what he is saying is not just for the sake of putting on a show.
(And even if it is, it’s a damn good show.)
As I am not well-versed in the history of Marlon Brando, I cannot say what, if any, of this documentary offers anything in terms of substance beyond what has already been published or produced. Regardless, Listen to Me Marlon is a spellbinding watch, a great exercise in alternative story presentation, and a terrific collection of clips and pics of a Hollywood legend.
A version of this review was first published as part of our ND/NF 2015 coverage. The film releases in NYC July 29 and LA July 31, 2015.