As one of the most revered, influential actors of the 20th century, Marlon Brando has been the subject of multiple documentary profiles over the years — to say nothing of the innumerable books, newspaper and magazine profiles and TV specials that have directly or indirectly incorporated the man, his persona, his acting and/or his politics. Listen to Me Marlon has an interesting hook to distinguish itself from the rest of the herd: Director Stevan Riley’s production was granted direct access to the Brando estate’s considerable library of documents from the actor’s life. Of particular note are the 300-plus hours of personal recordings which Brando made throughout his life, essentially a long audio diary. It’s these tapes which take center stage in this film.
Riley eschews the traditional biographical doc format. Brando’s voice, and his voice alone, takes up around 90 percent of the running time. Any words from other people come from archive sources — no one who knew the man is looking back in reflection, nor are experts on hand to explain historical tidbits. The personal tapes, as well as interviews in which the other party’s voice has been excised, have been chopped up and remixed into a long-form soliloquy. It’s an impressive feat of editing.
Though the voice work is laudable, the movie has a bit more trouble getting the visuals to match it. Besides the requisite montage of video and photographs of Brando, it also utilizes footage of him in his more famous roles, both to illustrate segments talking about his time on the films in question and to visualize his emotional state. It’s sometimes done in the service of broad thematic points, such as when the film connects his performance as Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire to his lingering fear of his very Stanley-like father. The most out-there element is a CGI head of Brando which occasionally performs the man’s dialogue. Made from a digital scan taken of the actor shortly before his death, it’s an effectively eerie presence, deployed just often enough to maintain the filmmakers’ idea that Brando is speaking all of these things not from various points of his life, but from beyond the grave, looking back on that life.
But while it’s always refreshing to watch a mainstream documentary that stretches itself beyond the borders of cliched presentation, Listen to Me Marlon doesn’t take its subject anywhere nearly as distinct. In tracing Brando’s life, through his youth, ascension to stardom, disillusionment with Hollywood, political agitation and family tragedies, the doc doesn’t illuminate much that hasn’t already been covered in any of the aforementioned parade of biographies and profiles. He was brilliant, he was temperamental, he was passionate, he was weird, so on and so forth. We know all this already. Not even the new material yields notable insight. For people unfamiliar with Brando (newer cinephiles, for instance), this could be valuable, but no more so than any other documentary, or a book, or last year’s You Must Remember This episode about the actor. We know plenty about what happened to Brando and what he thought about it, but Listen to Me Marlon, for all its ingenuity, doesn’t make the viewer understand how he felt.