Directed by: Stevan Riley.
Written by: Stevan Riley & Peter Ettedgui.
I don’t think there’s another actor I’d more want to listen to talk about themselves for 100 minutes than Marlon Brando. For one thing, he was one of the greatest actors in American movie history – if not the greatest – and he inarguably had more impact on acting in film than any other single actor ever. The number of great performances he gave is immense – and while he was also more than capable of being horrible in a movie – especially the older he got – he was incapable of being boring in a movie – he was always doing something interesting. For another reason, Brando had a fascinating life outside of movies – one marked by tragedy, sure, but also joy. And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it seems like he was more than a little nuts. Listen to Me Marlon is narrated by Brando from beginning to end – using interviews clips as well as personal audio recordings the actor had made for years – as an attempt at “self-hypnosis” he says. I’m not sure that the movie really adds all that much to the conversation about Brando that we didn’t already know – but the film is still a triumph – massively entertaining, and well made (aside from a bad score), that ditches the usual talking head/archival footage format of most docs, and simply allows Brando room to talk about his life from beginning to end. Some of it provides interesting insights into his work or his personal life – and some of it sounds like outtakes from his brilliant, rambling performance in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now – almost all of it is fascinating.
Like two other great docs from this year – Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and Amy (both of which are better than Listen to Me Marlon – but this is in the same ballpark), the film basically is a montage – and it is brilliantly edited by it’s directed, Stevan Riley. Riley more or less sticks to a chronological re-telling of Brando’s life – naturally spending the most time with Brando in the 1950s, when he was the biggest star in the world, and the early 1970s, when after he seemed like a washout, he made a comeback on stage. The film is never leaves Brando – who is pretty much the only voice we hear for most of the movie, as he narrates his life. Riley intercuts scenes from Brando’s movie work into Brando’s narration – sometimes because Brando is talking about that movie, and (more problematically) sometimes because the movie reflects what Brando is talking about (so, for example, when he talks about what a brute his father was, this is naturally intercut with scenes of Brando as Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire). Brando recounts the theory of method acting, as taught to him by Stella Adler, his approach to acting in general. The film also recounts Brando’s personal life – his womanizing, his numerous children – and fixates on two incidents in his children’s lives – the first when his son Christian killed his half sister’s boyfriend, and went on trial for murder, and the second when that same sister ended up killing herself.
There are a few problems with Listen to Me Marlon. For one, Brando it seems didn’t like to talk too much about those two family incidents the movie spends so much time on –so the film has to concentrate on TV news footage, which doesn’t give you much in the way of information – the specifics of what happened are so blurry in the doc, you wonder why Riley felt the need to include them at all. For another, the only director given any time in the doc is Bernardo Bertolucci – who we actually hear from, discussing Brando’s brilliant work in Last Tango in Paris – for quite some time. Oddly, the film barely mentions Francis Ford Coppola – even if The Godfather is talked about quite a bit, and Apocalypse Now is at least touched upon, and I don’t think Elia Kazan is mentioned at all. The movie spends more time detailing Brando’s feud with Lewis Milestone on Mutiny on the Bounty – than both of those directors combined, although that seems to be the film’s way of detailing Brando’s decline of the 1960s – as I don’t think any other film he made that decade – including his one as a director, One Eyed Jacks, rates a mention at all in the film (which is a shame – there’s some good stuff there).
Some of this is inarguably because Riley had to work with what he had been given – and if Brando didn’t talk about, there wasn’t much that could be done other than take the more traditional approach of talking heads – and that could have hurt the movie more. Listen to Me Marlon is an attempt to get inside Brando’s strange head – and in many ways it succeeds wonderfully. Early in the film, Brando explains how he has had his head “digitized” to be used after his death – because actors will exist only in computers in the future - “just you watch” he says – and throughout the movie, Riley returns to Brando’s weird, floating, disembodied floating head, narrating his life. It’s an oddly appropriate image for Brando – and a haunting one. Listen to Me Marlon really doesn’t tell you too much you didn’t already know about Marlon Brando – but any excuse to spend a couple of hours with this crazy genius is a good one – and Listen to Me Marlon provides that.