With exclusive access to his extraordinary unseen and unheard personal archive including hundreds of hours of audio recorded over the course of his life, this is the definitive Marlon Brando cinema documentary. Charting his exceptional career as an actor and his extraordinary life away from the stage and screen with Brando himself as your guide, the film will fully explore the complexities of the man by telling the story uniquely from Marlon's perspective, entirely in his own voice. No talking heads, no interviewees, just Brando on Brando and life.
If the usual celebrity documentary too often strays into the realm of "Let's see how many famous friends we can find to say nice things about the subject", Listen to Me Marlon, by contrast, is one of the loneliest feeling films about a performer whose works were experienced by so many. Billing itself as comprised from "hundreds of hours" of audio diaries recorded by the man almost universally billed as 'the world's greatest actor', the film is ultimately only half Brando in Brando's own words, interspersing his introspective mumblings with interview and news footage from the actor's life for a more neatly rounded documentary.
With this in mind, it's frustrating that, for a film about the actor celebrated for introducing method authenticity to the big screen, director/editor Stevan Riley indulges in so much cinematic trickery and documentary cliché (you can count the number of transitions not marked by solemn footage of wind chimes rustling on one hand ). Riley particularly gets a kick out of the trope of Brando's digitized head (but with nary a shout out to Brando's posthumously recycled performance in Superman Returns!), even having this CGI rendition 'speak' many of Brando's audio diaries, making significant eye contact with the audience at meaningful moments. Brando himself would likely scoff at the tackiness of this 'ghost Brando', and, while it does add a mesmerizing visual dimension to the 'talking heads' genre (arr arr arr ), it feels overused by the end, particularly while accompanied by the film's distractingly overbearing musical score. Mercifully, Riley stops short of having Ghost Brando sing "Luck Be a Lady Tonight". Shudder.
However, the real draw of the film, the 'Brando on Brando' audio recordings, do not disappoint. Brando has, of late, become almost less famous for his iconic performances as his on-set belligerence (guzzling jars of peanut butter in between takes, reading his lines off a baby's diaper in Superman, or refusing to wear pants on set); here, he is firmly restored as a human being. The Brando we get here is far more earnest and sensitive than the shirt-tearing brute cinema would make him out to be: articulate (no cotton-mouthed mumbling here!), introspective, surprisingly witty, and desperate to have a meaningful impact on the world. Amidst the pontifications on the value and necessity of acting and scorn for the falsities of celebrity – rousing in themselves – there are some movingly raw and emotional moments to be found, as Brando ruminates on the disastrous ramifications of his abusive upbringing and the ripple effects in the tragic lives of his own children, as well as important coverage of his often forgotten work with the civil rights movement from the 1950s-1970s. But, there's warmth to be found amongst the solemnity, as hearing Brando wax poetic about the paradise he found in Tahiti is genuinely moving, and it's hard, by the end, not to feel like he deserved the happiness.
As the film dreamily tumbles through the consecutive stages of Brando's career, it's fascinating to hear him candidly respond to audience reactions to him see-saw from Beatles- level hysteria to condescending indifference and back again through the years (spoiler alert: actors actually are affected by mass criticism!). Riley interweaves compellingly nostalgic clips from some of the earlier works in Brando's career (The Men, Brando's amusingly cringeworthy Mexican in Viva Zapata, Julius Caesar) and the seminal works (A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, The Godfather), and hearing Brando's stiltedly pretentious justification for straying into "lighter fare" in Guys and Dolls is just about worth the price of admission alone. Riley particularly devotes focus to the controversy of Mutiny on the Bounty, which Brando attributes both his love of Tahiti and his loss of public favour to, while hearing Brando and Francis Ford Coppola trade barbs about whose fault the disastrous shoot of Apocalypse Now was (amusingly, both try to take credit for Kurtz being mostly kept in shadow – Brando claiming it was his aesthetic take on the character, while Coppola snaps it was to hide how obese Brando had become) is a masterclass of parallel editing in itself.
Listen to Me Marlon may be flimsier than one would hope for such a rich, intimate opportunity – content-wise, there's nothing that couldn't be found in his IMDb biography ¬– but Brando's life and career are wild enough that it still makes for a highly compelling watch. Where the film truly excels is not in facts, but feelings, as Brando himself conveys passion, dry wit, and a voluminous loneliness like none other. If nothing else, Listen to Me Marlon is worth it for granting Brando the true performance of his career: himself – not an overeating, eccentric, reclusive genius, but a human being, vulnerable, flawed, and perpetually yearning to make a difference in himself and the world. Few would dispute it: he was a contender, and he really was something.
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