Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley, 2015)
This is not the first documentary about the great American actor Marlon Brando (there have been quite a few, in fact, including the comprehensive made-for-TV Brando in 2007), who died in 2004 at the age of 80, but it’s the first to feature so many words straight from the mouth of the notoriously private thespian. Director Stevan Riley (maker of the excellent Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007) gained access to the home tapes that Brando recorded over the years, mostly (but not exclusively) for self-hypnosis exercises, on which he ruminates on his life and his career. Combined with archival footage, these recordings allow Brando to narrate his own story, as if from the grave, guiding us on his journey from youth to old age. It’s a fascinating film that clearly intends to be the definitive account of Brando the man, and which comes awfully close to achieving that goal.
We open on the moment in 1990 when Christian, Brando’s son with actress Anna Kashfi, shot and killed the boyfriend of his half-sister Cheyenne. From this nadir, guided by Brando’s vocal palliatives (“Listen to me, Marlon,” he urges), we jump back to the 1940s and the actor’s arrival in New York, where he met Stella Adler, who would become his teacher and launch him into the career that made him famous the world over. As most people who were alive in the 20th century should already know, Brando revolutionized acting for both stage and screen in the 1940s and 1950s, taking the then-fresh ideas of the method school of acting and popularizing them through his success. As a restless and somewhat introverted soul, however, Brando was never at ease with his fame, and as this film makes abundantly clear, struggled throughout his life to reconcile what he saw as the silliness of his profession with a desire for a life of meaning. Those of us who love and admire many of his screen performances – his two Oscar wins, for On the Waterfront and The Godfather among them – can attest to just how meaningful Brando was to us, but to the man, himself, acting frequently left him feeling depleted and subsequently aimless. This film chronicles all of Brando’s misgivings, coming full circle back to 1990 and the aftermath of Christian’s crime (followed, 5 years later, by Cheyenne’s suicide). It’s an unhappy end, but not exclusively so. For in his final days, Brandon seemed to be more at peace with the importance of acting and how his own films may have touched others.
Riley constructs his movie with great care, and many of his own “methods” work wonderfully. I love the fact that there are no talking heads, leaving Brando as our (mostly) sole narrator. I also love the footage he found of Brando’s digitized head, which speaks to us as if from inside The Matrix. Unfortunately, some of the audio on the tapes is difficult to understand, at first (at least until our ears adjust to the hiss), and this fact is not helped by Riley’s misguided insistence on the use of intrusive non-diegetic music (most distracting during the sequences on The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris). Despite these weaknesses, however, the film is, overall, extremely successful at painting a clear and moving portrait of a very complex human being. It is a must-see for all Brando fans, as well as anyone who likes biographical documentaries.