Going from Bond to Brando, Stevan Riley’s intimate documentary, Listen to Me Marlon, delves into the mind and psyche of Marlon Brando. Entirely based on self-analysing audiotapes that Marlon made himself, Brando is basically talking to and about himself, and these tapes chart both his long and varied career as an actor, as well as his extraordinary life away from the stage and screen. Acting almost like a confession, the film fully explores the complexities and insecurities of Brando by essentially telling the full story uniquely from his own perspective and entirely in his own voice with no talking heads or interviewees. What we have is just Brando on Brando and life.
Marlon Brando had been something of a troubling individual; it’s always been worrying that many regard him as one of the greatest actors of his generation, yet he was someone who, for a great proportion of his acting career, had seemed to have lost faith in acting, and certainly in Hollywood. When he started off his career, he demonstrated how magnetic a screen presence he was when he did films like A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront and Guys and Dolls, however since The Godfather it all went downhill for him. He just took up cheque-collecting and not learning any of his lines instead of proper acting with films like The Formula, in which he wore an earpiece, and Superman, where he just read cue-cards. In a way, he was a cinematic Elvis in that the star burned bright but soon became a caricature of itself.
This downward spiral is evident in the documentary, and what we are witnessing is Brando slipping into the descent of despondent disillusion, which is only made worse and more harrowing by real-life family tragedy, which makes his whole life near-Shakespearean as a result. The documentary brilliantly gets under Brando’s skin, peeling back the layers to reveal someone who deep down was definitely a troubled, yet fragile and self-obsessed soul. Riley does an expert job of examining Brando during the toughest moments of his life (dealing with troubled parents and children) and him at his controversial. We hear how shocked he was about the invasive nature of Bernardo Bertolucci during the making of Last Tango in Paris, and him deriding Francis Ford Coppola for trying to crowbar a performance out of him for Apocalypse Now, so its during those periods that Brando felt nothing but anguished disappointment at how far he came.
In some significant scenes, we have the “ghost of Marlon Brando” speaking to us from beyond the grave as a CGI avatar (a la 2006’s Superman Returns). Bold, yet brilliantly realised in execution, and made all the more ironic as during the opening scene, Brando describes having his face electronically mapped to produce his CGI ghost, which enables him to dismiss the art of acting altogether by proclaiming that it’ll soon be dead thanks to the new digital age. Another thing Riley does brilliantly is interweave the audio recordings and mixing them in with the archival footage (interviews and behind-the-scenes material), and both go seamlessly together in creating that multi-layered portrait of Marlon. We don’t get to hear anything though about his experience on The Island of Dr. Moreau (a catastrophic failure and his worst performance) and the chaos he apparently caused on set (he wanted to change the script so he could remove the ice bucket and reveal a dolphin flipper on his head!), but when it’s all put together this well, that’s only a minor fault.
In the end, Brando has always been a fascinating, mumbling enigma, and Listen to Me Marlon offers a fascinating, yet haunting insight of a tortured man whose life has been filled with many ups and downs, and has always struggled to find any kind of resolution. Actually, much like Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, Brando probably couldn’t escape his own demons, as well as the horror.
LISTEN TO ME MARLON / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: STEVEN RILEY / SCREENPLAY: STEVEN RILEY, PETER ETTEDGUI / STARRING: MARLON BRANDO / RELEASE DATE: NOVEMBER 30TH