Listen to Me Marlon (2015; Stevan Riley)
By Daniel Barnes
“Raw and Deeply Personal”
The best documentary of the year so far.
Contrary to the didactic self-inflation and conclusion-based approach of Best of Enemies, Steven Riley’s stunning documentary Listen to Me Marlon practically bursts with a sense of discovery. It shows new sides to a man that most of us probably think we know front and back.
A mesmerizing tour through the tortured psyche of Marlon Brando, Listen to Me Marlon takes its shape from several hundred hours of audio recordings that Brando made throughout his life. Smug, scene-stealing interviewees are eschewed in favor of a hypnotic multimedia montage. The only “talking head” here is Brando’s own deteriorated CGI mug, the “future of acting” already crumbling to pixelated dust.
As was the case with Amy Winehouse in Amy, this approach allows an unguarded Brando to narrate his own life story effectively. Similar to Montage of Heck, the film paints its subject in a new light by drawing on some raw and deeply personal material.
“Vibrant and Revelatory Entertainment”
However, Listen to Me Marlon becomes a more vibrant and revelatory entertainment, partially because apocryphal stories have always shadowed the publicly aloof Brando’s life, and partly because that life really was completely fucking insane.
The Nebraska-born son of an abusive, philandering father and an alcoholic mother, Brando followed an acting bug to New York City and the New School. In New York, he developed a style of stage acting that was so self-destructive and exhausting, he naturally gravitated towards movies and instant icon status.
There is a rare nakedness and honesty to Brando here, even when he’s being withholding or contradictory. “I used to love the smell of liquor on her breath,” he says of his mother, a rainy wistfulness in his voice. Riley immediately contradicts this sentiment with an audio clip of Brando describing his mother as the “town drunk,” and the source of much of his childhood shame.
Listen to Me Marlon skillfully demonstrates how Brando’s personal life – his contempt for authority, his resentment towards his parents, his discomfort with fame, his political activism, his intellectual inferiority complex – shaped his style and informed his choices as an actor and as a public figure.
However, Riley also shows us the wounded, disturbed, petulant, complicated, and often misunderstood man beneath the tall tales and bad behavior. “Life is a rehearsal; life is an improvisation,” narrates Brando. That’s the perfect self-eulogy for a man who believed that “acting is surviving.”