Listen to Me Marlon is an intimate tonic of observations, moments of being Marlon Brando, culled from tape recordings that the actor made himself, left behind to his estate. Taken up eloquently by director Stevan Riley, an entertaining narrative construct is fabricated, along with extensive archival footage. I’ve never understood an actor more-in-depth than in this fashion, of Brando telling himself, listening to himself, and one is privy to this self-commentary, self-hypnosis. Through the recordings, one perceives Brando’s truths about underlying conflicts: being able to survive one’s great talent, and being able to trust and love along the way.
The documentary is bookended by a digital scan of Brando’s face, done late in life, which brings his vital living presence into the archival landscape. One feels that he is with us, or just round the corner of his house, that it turns out, has been rebuilt as a set on which to illustrate the tapes, along with the bulk of archival footage. Through the recordings, we meet Brando reflecting on his childhood, finding peace under the soft leaves of an Omaha tree. He guides us through his impressions of his mother, his early fame as an actor, his abusive father, and his unpredictable personality. The acting comes through masterfully, and Brando distinguishes when he is acting and when not, and what acting is, and how everyone is an actor, lying all the time. In this way, he becomes intimate and real with us, not for anyone, but for the sake of being intimate and real. He is pursuing this journey for himself, for perpetuity, and it’s so much more direct than letters to provide the treasure trove for this documentary work. Brando’s cry for Stella in “Streetcar Named Desire” will have new meaning when his mentor Stella Adler is revealed to be such a rock in his development as an actor and as a person. The film goes into deeper aspects of his disenchantment with acting, specifically in Mutiny on the Bounty. His love of Tahiti, and his purchase of a nearby island grew out of that need to go to a place where he could study people and not guess their expressions. In Last Tango in Paris, we find Bertolucci playing the same game as Brando, so much that Brando feels truly exposed, and, not acting. Riley takes us into the genius of “The Godfather,” and the conflicts and controversies around Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” with Brando changing the script, and with his direct point of view on the production. He had to become every role, and becoming the Heart of Darkness was by method acting. That he took his acting seriously is true for all his roles, even 12 days of work on Superman. Brando had the gift of time, as an actor, to be able to work once a year. Of the 300 hours of material found, 100 minutes is edited into seamless (un)narrative. We fall in love with Brando again, and are concerned for him and with him. There are spots unresolved of course. He glosses over fathering many children with many women, and seems both oblivious and aware of possible consequences. He had been hurt by his own alcoholic mother, and though supposedly there was one woman he was significantly drawn to, it was another tragedy that director Riley had to leave out to provide the balance the film contains now. There are already the tragedies of his children. The murder by Christian Brando, and the suicide of Cheyenne Brando, which led Brando never to return to Tahiti, his beloved island. He died in Westwood, Los Angeles, but left us with the greatest monologue ever to be edited after death, and in that, brought himself back to life in a way that will never be forgotten or rivaled. He directed in a sense, his own story, and Riley was the right director to piece Brando back together, digitally, emotionally, enduringly. Listen to Me, Marlon is self-reflexive, as stunningly as it is a directive to a present audience. We hear you out, Mar.