Listen to Me Marlon
Brando talks about Brando in mesmerizing showbiz documentary
Listen to Me Marlon (2015)
Directed by Stevan Riley
One of the hardest things to accomplish in a documentary is to capture the spirit of the person or persons you’re documenting. For the most part, documentaries are a collection of folks sitting down in front of a camera and talking about a person, place or time. As a documentarian about the best you can do is hope you find enough well-spoken talking heads with a close, personal knowledge of the subject that you capture a sliver of its true flavor for the audience. But the core problem remains: you’re violating one of the primary rules of filmmaking, which is to show and not tell. Sure, you can enhance your narrative by using archival footage, but you’re still missing out on the ineffable quality that lifts fictional storytelling above nonfictional reportage. Rare is the documentary that can—by look and feel and style—mirror a fraction of its subject’s life essence. The bad trip mojo of the Maysles brothers’ Gimme Shelter, the eclectic comic energy of Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb, the quixotic madness of Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, the coal-black rage against the machine that is Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County U.S.A.: These are just a few of the ones that manage the trick. Luckily for documentary filmmaker Stevan Riley, he’s stumbled across the Hamburger Helper of documentary film subjects in his appropriately idiosyncratic show-biz biopic Listen to Me Marlon.
Actor Marlon Brando apparently had a thing for recording his own voice. He recorded hundreds of hours’ worth of audio tapes over the course of his life, talking about every subject under the sun. Using this treasure trove of personal information as the backbone for his film, Riley (Fire in Babylon, Blue Blood) crafts a documentary that goes as deeply into the subject at hand as possible.
Listen to Me Marlon is an extremely cerebral film—in the sense that it all comes directly from the mind of Marlon Brando. There are no interviews with friends, family members and contemporaries, relating what they saw and speculating how Marlon felt. How Marlon felt at any particular point in time is well documented thanks to this mountain of audio tapes (provided with the full cooperation of the Brando estate). And since it doesn’t seem like they were ever destined for public consumption, there’s no reason to doubt the honesty of their contents. No one is asking Brando questions; he’s just talking about whatever topic he feels like. Stitched together in more-or-less chronological order, they create a compelling portrait of the man whose life was lived—for so many of us—on screen and in tabloid magazines.
Brando begins recounting his life story as he flees his alcoholic mother and abusive father in Omaha and rides the rails to freedom in New York City. In Brando’s own words, he arrives with “holes in my socks and holes in my mind.” Very quickly, Brando drifted toward The New School, a socially conscious Greenwich Village college founded by European intellectuals, many of whom were on the run from Hitler’s Germany. Brando found his life’s calling in the classes of method acting teacher Stella Adler. It led him to iconic roles in such landmark films as A Streetcar Named Desire, The Wild One and On the Waterfront.
Brando’s attraction to the method acting style is visceral. Coupled with the pain of his early childhood, it’s quite easy to see what would have drawn him to such a cathartic psychological technique. And it’s no surprise he took Adler’s lessons about emotional honesty in all things to heart. In his voice-overs Brando is blunt about his loving mother’s weaknesses and unrepentant about writing off his distant father. Talking about his mid-’60s career slump—most particularly his role as an Indian guru in the misguided 1968 adaptation of Terry Southern’s satirical novel Candy—Brando asks simply, “Haven’t you got any pride left?”
Riley employs a goodly selection of archival footage and old interviews to add visual cues to Brando’s nonstop narration. But—perhaps buoyed by the actor’s advice to always deliver the unexpected—the director offers some atypical moments. While Brando waxes about love and sex, Riley digs up footage of him flirting shamelessly with female interviewers—this allows the man to simultaneously set up dates and avoid answering personal questions. As Brando talks about his estranged father, a guest appearance by the senior Brando on an old TV interview show is spotlighted. In light of what we know about Brando’s dad, it’s a chilly and uncomfortable moment.
When he doesn’t have movie scenes or publicity footage to rely on, Riley steps up with some interpretive images that beautifully nail Brando’s psychological state. One curious find, for example, is a series of self-hypnosis tapes Brando recorded (which also provide the film’s curious title). While Brando drones on to himself about flashing back to his childhood, walking along the sidewalk and resting in the shade of a towering tree at the end of the block, Riley provides abstract glimpses of rural Omaha—a visual idyll that mirrors Brando’s internal monologue. Somehow, this brings us closer to Brando than any random reminiscence from childhood neighbors ever could.
These days most of us remember Brando from his erratic later years. Odd film choices (The Island of Dr. Moreau), odder sartorial choices (the ever-present muumuus) and lingering scandals (the death of his daughter’s Tahitian lover at the hands of her half-brother) comprise much of his legacy. But the Brando heard here is no enigmatic tabloid headline. He’s no intense, Oscar-winning method actor either. He’s a fully formed human being. He’s funny, loose, intellectual, self-aware, self-deprecating. He seems acutely aware of his flaws and the detrimental effect he had on the people around him. He discourses—often quite wisely—on fame, marriage, civil rights and a whole host of topics. The bottom line seems to be: You don’t get to be the greatest actor of your generation by being a boring person. This lucidly stated, perfectly curated, beautifully edited collage captures what it was like to be one of Hollywood’s most iconic faces and voices.