Stevan Riley’s Listen to Me Marlon is an astonishing documentary for a number of reasons. Surely the fact that it even exists is somewhat of a triumph, with Marlon Brando as its subject. This 2015 piece places the ball in the actor’s court and it weaves a life in his own words, using reams of self-recorded material from the actor to weave a unique commentary that is often eerie but always fascinating.
Riley delves into the hundreds of hours of material provided by the Brando recordings, with the material commencing in the 1950s and venturing through the next 50 years. There are tapes of self-hypnosis, there are recordings from home movies, there are film clips, and there are other sorts of interview pieces. Riley’s creates a collage of his subject, contrasting the audio with dazzling visual imagery.
The film opens with a sort of digitized composite of Brando, which is based on a scan of the actor’s head from the 1980s. The 3D image “speaks,” providing an eerie image as though the actor is talking from beyond the grave. Things move from his upbringing to his introduction to Stella Adler, who taught the Stanislavski System, to his first screen roles.
All the while, Brando speaks of emotional realism and the lies told by the world. The movie explores On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire, studying a young and confident actor making his way in the world. But personal moments become part of the figure on screen, with pieces of his private life finding their way to the surface.
As the tapes reveal, Brando felt drained and used by Hollywood. He sought serenity, often turning inward for the answers. He distrusted directors and producers and anyone associated with the business. He found Tahiti, a paradise he fashioned as an escape after working on Mutiny on the Bounty. And, most of all, he was searching for truth.
Without question, Brando understood his life. He knew what he was and he knew what he was becoming. He was aware of the shadow of his mother and father, both drunks, and he knew that he was limited in his ability to overcome their respective paths. He used his success to escape the legacy, to forge his own sense of belonging, and he found peace on his own terms.
There were times when he seemed to adore acting, like with the earlier performances or when he found his groove in The Godfather and looked for something meaningful beyond the tale of crime. Riley’s film tiptoes through the boundaries of how Brando’s relationship with Francis Ford Coppola progressed, from wanting him to play Don Corleone to nearly loathing him for messing with Apocalypse Now.
In truth, Listen to Me Marlon doesn’t lead the audience anywhere Brando doesn’t want to go. Riley doesn’t steer his subject because he can’t. There are no leading questions and the actor’s words flow like water from the tapes, sinking and spilling wherever they must go as Brando explores the contours of his own mind.
Sometimes Riley interjects with pieces of real life. There is news footage of the death of Dag Drollet, the lover of Brando’s daughter Cheyenne, at the hands of his son Christian. And there is talk of his involvement in the civil rights movement. Riley also shows the famous footage of Sacheen Littlefeather accepting his Oscar for The Godfather at the 1973 Academy Awards.
But Listen to Me Marlon is no biography and the aforementioned videotape is used only to provide a framework to Brando’s own words. As such, the documentary is by nature incomplete. Things are not nearly as scandalous as one might expect, which owes to the self-referential treatment of the material. This is, rather, a heavy dose of introspection.
With Listen to Me Marlon, Riley does his best to let Brando speak for himself. He gets out of the way, edits and curates the material in dutiful fashion and crafts a story that should be of undeniable interest to film fans. And he examines acting, too, as the art his subject claimed to hate but the art to which his subject had given his very existence.