Listen to Me Marlon

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I made a goal to watch more documentaries this summer, and I seem to be succeeding by watching a bunch of documentaries about famous people. Similar to another documentary from this summer, Amy, Listen to Me Marlon constructs itself mainly out of archival footage in an attempt to give the (albeit deceased) subjects more authorship over their own stories. This seems to be true to even a greater extent here, due to the narration by Brando himself which becomes the film’s main draw (and at times, drawback).

The film unfolds relatively chronologically. It starts with a shooting that occurred in the Brando household relatively late in Marlon’s life, then flashes back to the actor’s humble beginnings in Omaha, Nebraska. It follows him to New York, learning acting from Stella Adler, stage success, followed by screen success, his disillusionment with acting, his comeback in the early seventies, finally reaching the shooting from the beginning. Ticking off the major events and touchstones in his life hardly seems the point, Brando’s commentary is.

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The tapes that narrate the film are largely drawn from Brando’s attempts at self hypnosis or some sort of personal exploration. It’s interesting that he was so concerned with this during his life, and knowingly created raw material for this type of film. Obviously not all of it was used, so the editing of the audio and matching it with images is where Riley’s artistic contribution comes in. While the events of the film follow a fairly straightforward chronology, Brando’s commentary doesn’t. You can hear just from the change in the quality of his voice what is from his later life and what is from earlier interviews and such.

One of the most interesting things about Brando’s narration is that he contradicts himself over the course of his life. It’s nice to see a film actually show this, rather than the more one note approach to character that a lot of biopics take. Obviously, this is a completely different type of film, but it was still nice to see this. After seeing this film, you’ll know some of what happened and some of what Brando thought about it, but the film still preserves the mystery of his character. In some cases, it does this a bit too much. It seems to leave out a lot about his many many children, other than using his love for them to connect to the character of Vito Corleone he doesn’t seem to talk of them much. More aggravating for me was the complete omission of One Eyed Jacks, the direction of which he took over after firing a young Stanley Kubrick. I’m sure that would have been interesting.

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What we’re left with though, is Brando’s thoughts, almost more than the man himself. We’re mostly hearing what he’s thinking of himself, life, and philosophy in general, which gives the film a very introspective air. At some points, mostly early on in his career, he waxes poetic about actors and acting, their status as liars and ability to enrich lives. The film paints a picture of Brando as an artist who was constantly bothered by role of actors, even when he wasn’t acting professionally, or acting up to the standard that the world had come to expect. It says something that he was still thinking about his interpretation of what an actor is, even at the points in his life when he scorned the very profession. It’s impossible to watch the film and not think about acting, what it means to those who do it, those who see it, and really everyone.

With such weighty issues examined, at least this film steers clear of the familiar price of fame narrative, though it does dip its toes into that occasionally (which is fine by me, since it is what happened on some level). I ended up with kind of a conflicted view of the film. It is at once too conventional and too unconventional to really get to me. On one hand, there are a lot of marvelous connections made through the editing and I praise the introspective feeling that Riley achieved rather than a laundry list of already documented events. On the other, I think he missed some of the events that probably should have been examined, and the film was so cerebral that I lost patience with it at some points. It’s not long, only 95 minutes, but had I seen it at home and not in a theater I would have paused it a couple of times. It’s kind of a mixed bag, but at least Riley really tried to do something different and capture Marlon Brando’s incredibly unique voice.

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Long story short: 3/4 stars

For Further Reading:

The Hollywood Reporter review
The New Yorker review
Matt Zoller Seitz review

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