Listen to Me Marlon may be the saddest, most personal documentary I’ve ever seen. Perhaps that doesn’t sound like a ringing recommendation. But this movie pulls you in and under its spell as it dispels the fascinating, often troubled career and life of Marlon Brando. Perhaps calling Brando the greatest actor ever is an overstatement. But his contribution to modern acting remains undiminished by time, and if you sit down and watch his Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, it’s undeniable that the man had something vital and primal welling up inside him.
One of the best things about Listen to Me Marlon is that it’s not some glorified educational video fitted for the big screen. I must confess that I’m really getting sick of those kinds of docs, even the good ones. They’re like vitamins that we're forced to take for our own good, and that kind of mindset is deadly to a love of the movies. Listen to Me Marlon rethinks the documentary in several ways, but part of this film’s uniqueness stems from a piece of sheer dumb luck. Brando had his face digitized a number of years ago, apparently under the belief that one day actors would all be computerized, not real flesh-and-blood people. Brando also kept a kind of audio diary, and director Stevan Riley has culled the apparently voluminous recorded material and structured it into a compelling narrative. That’s no small feat.
Listen to Me Marlon is also a beautiful-looking film, composed not just of excerpts from the films of Marlon Brando and media coverage of the actor, but illustrated with visuals which complement the narrative and deepen the emotional core of the film. Documentaries are frequently difficult to write about from a cinematic perspective, because they’re so often not very cinematic. They might have been made for television, which makes them visually antithetical to the movie-going experience. Riley has found a way to be true to that experience with Listen to Me Marlon. The colors are stark and dark and moody, and the sound floats over and through us. It's almost an other-worldly sensation, one that heightens our sense of the Brando mythology. To have done it any other way would have, I think, been a kind of betrayal to Brando.
When we talk about Marlon Brando, we talk about his virtuoso performances in films like A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront and Last Tango in Paris. We talk about how his career, which had stalled for over a decade, was revitalized by Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. We talk about his troubled personal life—including the incarceration of one child and the death of another. We talked about the fact that, for many years, Brando represented a popular American hero. He hailed, appropriately, from the Midwest, and was the product of an abusive father and an unhappy mother who had dashed artistic dreams of her own, but who encouraged her son's love of music and performance. Brando as a teenager became a misfit, a trouble-maker, because he felt isolated; that same isolation would be felt by audiences across the world from the force of his performances on the stage and screen.
Listen to Me Marlon addresses all of this information, but never in a calculated or gossipy way. The film feels intimate and introspective because it is coming directly from the mouth of Brando. It’s a surreal experience to see this grey-white talking head of Brando, which resembles a plaster-of-Paris mask, and hear the voice that sounds very much like Jor-El in Superman, sort of British and very formal and measured and calming. We might just as well be the infant Superman as he careens through space in that weird crystal chamber where recordings of his father play constantly. The experience of Listen to Me Marlon is weightless, dreamlike, and haunting, and does more to honor the profession of acting than anything I've seen in a long time.