Listen to Me Marlon… This is one part of yourself speaking to another part of yourself. Listen to the sound of my voice and trust me. You know I have your interests at heart… Just relax, relax, relax. I’m going to help you change in a way that will make you feel happier, more useful… I want you to accept what I say as true. What I tell you here and now is true.
That audio excerpt, made in 1996, comes from Marlon Brando’s personal collection of self-hypnosis. It is one excerpt of many that Brando recorded either for himself, for posterity or to regain some form of control over the figure and iconic actor that had gotten away from him and became public property.
Acting, as Brando puts it, “Is lying at the speed of light. You’re lying to save your life.” And when it came to lying, few did it better. Born on April 3, 1924 to two alcoholic parents, Brando began acting a very young age, primarily to distract his mother from the bottle. As he grew up, he studied under Stella Adler (a teacher of the method) where he learned to draw on painful memories from his past to embody the characters he was playing. It worked like gangbusters and Brando exploded on the stage in Tennessee William’s Streetcar Named Desire as Stanley Kowalski. Three years later, Brando reprised the role for the film version and became a household name.
In hopes of propagating that household name to a new generation, director Stevan Riley crafts Listen to Me Marlon, a documentary about the actor’s life and career from the perspective of the subject, namely, the audio recordings from Brando’s collection.
Although reclusive and shy in public, there is little that is not already known about Brando. This is partly due to his personal approach to performance — particularly Last Tango in Paris where writer/director Bernardo Bertolucci managed to pull an autobiography out of Brando — his status as a celebrity, his outspoken political opinions and a heavily publicized murder trial involving his son, Christian, in 1990. Riley utilizes Brando’s recordings as both a jumping off point and as the connective tissue to these events, telling Brando’s story cradle to grave. The film clips are iconic, as are some of the interviews with the press, but the addition of the audio recordings, and a digital scan of Brando’s head (made in 1980 by VFX master Scott Billups), provide a layer of style to Riley’s documentary.
And while that style engages, it also points out a crucial shortcoming of Listen to Me Marlon, exploration. Riley relies too heavily on a clip show presentation of Brando’s life to give any sense of the opposition. Much has been written and said about Brando penchant for holding up production and on-set dalliances that cost studios millions. Later Brando was plagued by weight problems and a disinterest in memorizing lines, while demanding that scripts be re-written over and over again to suit his needs. Riley, touches on these moments, but brushes past them, shrugging them off as part-and-parcel to the realm of genius. Riley remains in awe of Brando, and he should be, but he should also be critical of that awe.
Listen to Me Marlon is strangely reminiscent of another documentary released earlier this year about another icon of the cinema, Magician: The Astonishing Life & Work of Orson Welles. Both string together archival footage, audio recordings and small moments of reenactment to give stream-of-consciousness depictions of their subjects — and in both cases, a bland wall-to-wall score provides the kinetic impulse which the images follow. Neither is inventive, though both are excellent primers for those unfamiliar with the subject’s work. But for hungry cineastes interested in what lurks beneath the surface, there is little else.