By Elias Savada.
Listen to Me Marlon, the new documentary about the controversial and complex actor Marlon Brando, follows a similar technique found in A Fuller Life, which I recently reviewed. Both use the words of its subjects to tell an absorbing tale. The Sam Fuller film has the words of his autobiography spoken by a dozen-plus actors and directors whose paths had connected with the maverick filmmaker during his lifetime. British director-writer-editor Stevan Riley populates his new film (co-written by Peter Ettedgui), which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (where it was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema-Documentary category), with the somnolent voice of one of the greatest actors who even lived. In the secret world of the reclusive Brando, the Oscar-winning and oft-laureled star recorded hundreds of hours of analog audio — probably in the wee hours of the night — as fodder for an eventual book. During the course of this 103-minute feature, you’ll be listening to his personal story, never before heard by the public.
But first, this breaking story. Riley starts off his rambling ode with an exposé-style news compilation of the shooting at Brando’s home in 1990. It’s an unsettling start, more in tone with something you might catch on an episode of some all-revealing “reality” program. No supporting info about who killed whom (for those who weren’t around or just forgot, Marlon’s son Christian shot his half-sister’s boyfriend and served five years in prison). Just an unusual point used by Riley before settling the film into a more nostalgic stride, with something a little different than the normal array of talking heads. There will be closure, of sorts, on this segment’s personal tragedy later in the feature, complete with court television footage. But I felt it distracted from the measured texture I get from the rest of the film.
Riley has tackled amateur boxing (Blue Blood, 2006), cricket — the sport, not the Jiminy (Fire in Babylon, 2010) — and James Bond (Everything or Nothing, 2012). Listen to Me Marlon is a natural progression in his career arc, continuing his association (their third collaboration) with producer John Battsek, who heads the film department at Passion Pictures. That company won an Oscar with its first film (One Day in September) in 1999 and has been involved with dozens of important documentaries since.
It’s intriguing to hear the sadness in Brando’s voice as he tells of confusion and loneliness within his life, and the admiration (he has little) and disgust (a lot) about show business (particularly surrounding his budget-bloating antics while filming Mutiny on the Bounty). Sometimes he talks in the third person. Other moments are from self-hypnosis sessions (cue the slowing heart beat), which he attempted, unsuccessfully, to deal with his late-in-life obesity. These mesmerizing flashes (“Drift. Drift like a cloud in the sky.”) might be interpreted, depending on what you’re smoking, as a comedy routine from Firesign Theatre (“Welcome to Side 5. Follow in your books as we learn three new words in Turkish.”— kids, go buy this on iTunes and blow your mind). No, thankfully (sorry for the weird sidetrack), but Riley does fantasize his film’s visual palate with photos, home movies, television interviews, behind-the-scenes featurette material, clips, and generic stock footage themes (trains, New York City) that flicker onscreen as Brando speaks. Ambient noises rustle behind the spoken words, and a sometimes discordant sound design (including opera (!) in the end of the film) adds a strange edge to this undertaking. There’s also a familiar screen test I recall seeing on a decade-old episode of AMC’s Sunday Morning Shootout, a program on which I did some research.
Career highlights. Studying with Stella Adler at the New School. A Streetcar Named Desire. On the Waterfront. Pick a dozen others. The women who have touched him, inside and outside of marriage. Family lowlights. Alcoholic mother. His son’s kidnapping. A bitter divorce. Epic disasters. Especially Candy. What might have been. “If I hadn’t had been an actor, I’d probably be a con man.”
Also: Tahiti (he loved it). The process of lying; the art of acting. You get a few minutes about The Godfather, one of his (and cinema’s) greatest roles. It’s one of the film’s more poignant segments. He touches on the raw emotions he experienced when being directed by Bernardo Bertolucci (“trust the process”) in Last Tango in Paris. And, too briefly, Apocalypse Now and Superman (“$14 million for 12 days work.”).
There’s a recurring theme of amazement. For both the actor and especially Riley. Brando was flabbergasted when his head was digitally scanned for preservation some 20 years ago. Those scans, like the audio tapes heard throughout the film, were made accessible by Brando’s estate. Using CGI technology there is now new “footage” of an eerie, electronic Marlon head reciting lines from Macbeth (click here for an entertaining New York Times piece about the process). This strange, pixelated Frankenstein monster face pops up on background monitors hither and yon during the film.
There’s an effort by the filmmaker to put a lot of information into Listen to Me Marlon. Riley got to select his audio from the pick of the litter, framing it as a personal fever dream. Brando was a bigger-than-life character, now caught in a film that barely captures his immense spirit, even if it has some exceedingly revelatory moments.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.