Director: Stevan Riley
Starring: Marlon Brando
Stevan Riley’s documentary Listen to Me Marlon starts with the voice of Marlon Brando explaining how in the 1980s he had his head digitised, scanned with a laser and captured in a computer. We then see this primitive 3D recreation of his face speaking the words we are hearing as Brando describes a future in which actors like himself will be replaced by these malleable recreations. In a way, this becomes a metaphor for the film we are about to watch. Riley uses old footage, photographs and recordings to recreate Brando in an intimate and personal way, in what almost amounts to a posthumous autobiography.
Marlon Brando is one of the most fascinating figures in film history. Regarded by many as the greatest actor in screen history, he cast a large shadow. But many of the attributes that made him such a special talent caused him to struggle greatly under such an intense spotlight. Always a reluctant star, he was reclusive later in life. Even in his youth when he was at his most charismatic, his engagement with the press always saw him playing a role, different roles depending on the situation and his mood, but always careful not to reveal himself. When he passed away in 2004 many assumed he would always remain an enigma, which is what makes the intimate and insightful Listen to Me Marlon such a treat for film fans.
During his life, Marlon Brando made hundreds of hours of audio recordings of himself. Some were simple memos, others recollections and memories. Some were self-hypnosis tapes. These never before heard tapes have been carefully compiled by Riley and used to narrate this documentary about Brando’s life. The project was initiated by the Brando estate to mark the tenth anniversary of the legendary actor’s death, yet despite this, the resulting film doesn’t have the contrived, overly positive, mythologising tone one might anticipate. Rather, Listen to Me Marlon feels incredibly honest. The nature of the narration suggests the openness of a man simply talking to himself.
We see Brando as a young man with incredible talent but no specific plan. As he put it, he had “a certain panache,” but beneath it lay a deep sense of inadequacy about his intelligence and the emotional scars of his upbringing by an alcoholic mother and abusive father. One of a new wave of method actors to hit the screen in the 1950s, we are given insight into the Method and his specific process. “Acting is lying,” he argues, “We all act. I’m just aware of the process.” He describes using memories of watching his father hitting his mother as an emotional trigger when he needed to portray anger. And so we are constantly reminded about the interconnectedness of his talent and his troubles. He was aware of his iconic status, of the deified manner in which people started to speak about him and uncomfortable about the intensity of some fans worship of him.
Just as interesting as the rise is the way in which the film explores Brando’s decline. We hear his side of the story on his well-documented productions in the 1970s. He discusses his desire to understand criminality for The Godfather, and his decision to portray Don Corleone as a gentle family man rather than playing him as a villain. He describes his sense of betrayal and violation when Bernardo Bertolucci drew heavily on Brando’s own psyche to create his character in Last Tango in Paris. He notes how he had to practically rewrite the screenplay for Apocalypse Now when he arrived on set, so shambolic was its state. Whether or not one chooses to believe Brando’s account of events, at the very least we now have an idea of how he perceived things. The actor also speaks candidly about his weight, and we even hear some of the self-hypnosis tapes he used in a desperate attempt to deal with it.
Carefully compiled and beautifully shot, Listen to Me Marlon is an intimate exploration of a brilliant but tortured soul. Amusing, intriguing, sometimes funny and often quite sad, this is a unique film befitting a unique talent.
Review by Duncan McLean
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