Documentary biographies of famous people are usually rich in talking head interviews about the subject along with lots of archival footage. Marlon Brando taped his thoughts, reflections on his life and the cost of fame for many years that went unheard. Until now, that is, with “Listen to Me Marlon.”
Unlike the abovementioned biographies, “Listen to Me Marlon” is 100 percent Brando’s own words and images from his amazing life as an actor and activist. This makes for a wealth of behind the scenes ruminations all from Brando’s unique point of view. He talks about his films and the ups and downs of being a world famous actor and its impact on his personal life.
Documentary filmmaker Stevan Riley had access to the hundreds of hours of audio tapes of Brando, as well as a wealth of archival footage. The film is unique in that it is all Brando all the time, so we get to spend a couple of hours (and a lifetime) with the man. I have never seen a film the likes of “Listen to Me Marlon.” It is a truly unique entry in the pantheon of documentaries. I give it an A-.
Brando was considered one of the greatest American actors, but a series of bad movies, weight gain, personal scandal and his role as an activist tainted the latter decades of his career - the media had re conceptualized him. The very private Brando had been working towards a documentary on his life before his death in 2004, leaving behind hundreds of hours of audiotapes recorded for this purpose. Cowriter (with his "Everything or Nothing" partner Peter Ettedgui)/editor/director Stevan Riley tells his story in Brando's own voice as he addresses himself in "Listen To Me Marlon."
One must imagine the countless hours it took Riley to assemble this material so that we feel like we're living in Brando's memories and musings. In addition to the audio material, the director discovered that Brando had had his face digitized back in the 80's (remember the hue and cry of years back when it was feared that digital technology would replace flesh and blood actors?), and using state of the art technology has rendered his ghostly image in 3D to speak some of his words. Cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland's ("The Arbor") camera snakes around Brando's empty house, his pixilated face hovering in the next room from a PC, the effect adding to the spiritual presence of Brando more strongly than Dior in "Dior and I." Like Kapadia's "Amy," "Listen To Me Marlon" restores the subject's actual persona from the dinged and dented media creation in his own words.
The effect of the film is really something revolutionary in its construct. Riley opens full screen with the digital Marlon, pixels trailing from his face in waves with his movement and speech, before seguing to news coverage of his son Christian's shooting of his daughter Cheyenne's boyfriend at his estate. But this isn't a grab at sensationalism as much as a contrast to set the stage for the words of a man more sensitive than we might remember, one often contradictory, especially regarding his chosen profession, but one on a path of self analysis and betterment. The material isn't arranged chronologically but as a train of thought, accompanied by archival stills, movie clips, dreamy stock footage of Brando's habitats, the Maysles' documentary short "Meet Marlon Brando," home movie footage and the very occasional outside comment, most notably with his method acting teacher Stella Adler.
We hear Marlon talk about his 'poetic' mother who gifted him with a sense of the absurd, who is also gradually revealed as 'the town drunk' and a woman who abandoned him. His father was also a drinker and a hard man (when Marlon's son Christian is born he says he vowed to never let the man near him so he could not damage his grandson as he had his son). He talks of Adler and how he tried to analyze people 'always hiding things' in the three second flashes as they walked by on NYC streets. His late 40's Broadway triumph in 'A Streetcar Named Desire' brought flocks of women and he enjoyed 'spreading his seed far and wide.' None of his three marriages lasted, but he clearly adored his children, relocating them to the Tahiti he'd fallen in love with so they could grow up surrounded by the loving Polynesian nature. We hear his self hypnopsis tapes, in which he tries to let his anger go and dissuade himself from overeating (while explaining the comfort he has always found in food).
Brando appears most conflicted on acting, at first talking about 'being real' yet surprising the audience with things they do not expect, then talking about it as a once-a-year job that would support island life before despairing at looking the fool in "A Countess from Hong Kong" and "Candy." His reflections on "Apocalypse Now" are of interest if in complete contrast with Copolla's. Then there is his avowal not to 'bare his soul' on screen anymore just before "Last Tango in Paris" as we're given evidence of an unprecedented contrary.
"Listen To Me Marlon" is sure to spark a reappraisal of Brando the man and the actor. He was someone grappling with the troubles of his childhood, a man of great beauty always looking for love, a good prank, decency in treatment of others. Riley's groundbreaking work affords a means of empathetic understanding of the more outrageous behavior the media used as fodder for entertainment.
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