Estate-approved documentaries can so often feel like staid puff-pieces, but considering that director Stevan Riley (Everything or Nothing) has been granted access to 200 hours of Marlon Brando’s unedited personal recordings, how could it be anything more or less than a resolutely honest look at a soul?
Most of these recordings have never been heard by the general public before, and Riley does a terrific job fielding out 95-minutes of pure gold, the audio juxtaposed with sharply-edited archive footage and, strangely enough, an occasional CGI model of Brando’s face which reflects his own spoken fears that he would eventually be replaced by such technology.
How rarely do we get to listen to the introspective thoughts of one of the world’s greatest actors, away from boot-licking press junkets where said actor is tired, bored or both? With his guard down, everything from his deepest insecurities to his worldview and his upbringing are freely discussed; whether viewers will see this as an icky intrusion, even though the film is supported by his family, is likely to vary wildly.
Even so, what emerges is that Brando was a decidedly more self-aware human being than you might expect, as he riffs on his acting craft, activism, and talks briefly about a number of his top-tier projects, such as hilariously offering his own perspective on all those reports that he insisted to be shot in low light during Apocalypse Now in order to conceal his own weight (he claims it was to depict the light and dark of man). Naturally the pic also delves into the personal relationships and the tragedies involving both his son and daughter, as well as, curiously enough, his attempts to lose weight via self-hypnosis tapes.
Despite his surprisingly cynical perspective on acting as a business, there is ultimately a poignant epiphany near the film’s conclusion about what acting means to people and what value it has in society. Though Riley no doubt manipulated this monologue’s placement in his film in order to end the documentary on something approaching a high, it’s a stirring effective manipulation all the same. While no single doc can comprehensively cover the man’s full life and times, Listen to Me Marlon humanises a figure who in his largeness and infamous on-set difficulty can so often feel like a monolith more than a man.
Listen to Me Marlon is available on Blu-ray now