Listen to Me Marlon (2015) / Documentary

MPAA Rated: Not rated, but would be R for language, violent images,  and some sexual content
Running Time: 95 min.

Cast: Marlon Brando
Director: Stevan Riley
Screenplay: Steven Riley, Peter Ettedgui

Review published August 18, 2015

Some people might call Marlon Brando the greatest actor of all time, or certainly one of the greatest, but most who have worked with him, or perhaps even had known him in person, would also say he is one of the most enigmatic as well.  This makes it hard to do a full documentary on media-averse Brando, as there may be many anecdotes about things he may have done or said, but as for insights into his character, there are few who could be interviewed that would provide much depth, especially as many found him very difficult to connect with. 

Listen to Me Marlon does get one big interview from, perhaps the only person who truly knew Marlon Brando enough to know just how he thought at any given time -- Marlon Brando himself.  Made with the blessing of the Brando estate, culled from hundreds of hours worth of audio cassette tapes Brando recorded privately for his own self-analysis over many years, Stevan Riley's documentary mixes a vast array of snippets and sound bites to try to form a complete picture on the reclusive actor's thought process relating to a wide array of subjects, from his approach to acting, his opinions on some of the films he had made, his philosophy on women, his upbringing with an abusive and largely unsupportive father, his adulation of the island and people of Tahiti, people in the industry he either admired or didn't see eye to eye with, race relations, and of life and death itself. 

Brando used tapes to either work out thoughts he had in his mind that he didn't trust to anyone else to listen to.  He didn't trust psychiatrists, even though he had seen them from time to time.  Other tapes are used in order to perform self-hypnosis, encouraging himself to feel contentment in his current situation, or perhaps to eat less, as his weight had risen to very unhealthy levels as he had gotten older.  Riley also weaves in clips of television interviews and promotional appearances Brando had done in his early days (especially spotlighting ones in which he would flirt with attractive female interviewers mercilessly), as well as statements he had made in the public following the highly publicized murder trial of his son Christian for shooting his half-sister Cheyenne's boyfriend in 1990.  While his audio tapes play, Riley shows us rare photographs, magazine covers, newspaper articles, shots from home movies, clips from his completed films, and some material not made by or for Brando, but which fits the thematic material of whatever the actor is expanding upon, such as what happened to be in the news, from Vietnam to Watergate to the Civil Rights movement to the fight for Native American respect, both in films and in life.

Listen to Me Marlon will doubtlessly have limited appeal to Brando fans primarily, who will gobble up every tidbit a very flawed and troubled, but phenomenally talented Brando deemed worthy to relate, but might also be of interest for those who study acting as a profession (especially as a student of the legendary Stella Adler and her teachings on Method acting), as the film contains many nuggets of inspiration from one of the greatest to ever earn a living at the craft.  To a lesser extent, fans of old Hollywood films will also find some of the depictions of the hold Hollywood days of interest, and maybe even those who enjoy documentaries that are decidedly different will like the form of Riley's approach, if not always the content. 

It may not be everyone's bag, and those unfamiliar with Brando may find it particularly tedious to dig into, but the dream-like, stream-of-consciousness delivery does make it a truly one-of-a-kind documentary that has every bit the kind of haunting quality of you'd expect when receiving eerie messages of Marlon Brando speaking to us, even if indirectly, from beyond the grave.

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo