Marlon Brando’s relationship with the public eye was a contentious one. Few celebrities were as notoriously private and reclusive, and yet few were so open in their political beliefs – there’s no white actor who could be said to have been more publicly supportive of the civil rights movement. And this is to say nothing of his profession and training in the Method, channeling his own private thoughts into very public performances. This all begs the question of how much Brando wanted to be known about himself. Listen to Me Marlon is a crucial document about Brando and how he’s perceived by the public, which doesn’t answer the above question, but does offer some great insight. An impressive film in many ways, it’s only really let down by some very conventional editing and stylistic choices.
Made with the full support of the Brando estate, Listen to Me Marlon is compiled from hundreds of private audio cassettes Brando made while he was alive, alongside other performances – in movies, on TV or other media – woven into a narrative without any external narrator. It’s mostly a marvel of editing, flowing intuitively all through different clips, often many years apart. The filmmakers show instances of foreshadowing, irony (audio of Brando’s tortured upbringing with his after juxtaposed with an uncomfortable TV interview with the two) and at times just enough in the way of contradictions to tease out hints that much of this is indeed a mode of performance. For example, his comments about the production of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now are at odds with the anecdotal history film buffs are so familiar with, misconstruing or omitting key details that preserve his opinion of himself on a certain moral high ground. Similarly are his developing views on his profession; he will talk about the catharsis and truth found in the Method under his teacher Stella Adler with the utmost respect, and later utter generalisations about the lack of worth of the entire acting business.
As such, to this reviewer it seemed less like a film where his psychology is bared for all to see, but rather a mid-point between that and a cumulative effort at self-mythologising over the decades. Some of the issues that you imagine embarrassed him at a deep level, like his struggles with his weight over the last years of his life, are barely hinted at, and the personal tragedies that plagued his family are represented mostly by pre-existing, public appearances. That’s not to say the film is devoid of new information; in fact his (often contradictory) thoughts on acting and his own success in that field are telling; particularly fascinating is his dismissal of his own work in perhaps his most famous scene, the “Contender” speech in On the Waterfront. His humility and perspective suggest a deeper understanding for the craft of motion picture advertising than perhaps is first apparent. For example, he posits that the scene works not because of the intrinsic genius of his performance, but because the scene hits a fundamentally deep chord in audiences, letting them do the rest of the work in sympathising with the character.
And yet the film is held back by some peculiar stylistic choices and a conventional narrative, despite the presumable wealth of information to reframe how we talk about Brando. There’s a particularly egregious, generic score that plays over just about every clip; it’s a shame the filmmakers didn’t think we could be left alone with Brando’s thoughts and voice, I daresay it could have been a more engrossing experience. The lack of discretion is noticeable in particular when the score is present even when playing clips of his classic films, sacred cinema texts like The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris, a form of vandalism akin to making a Picasso documentary, but showing the painter’s most famous works with watermarks. And the reliance of every ‘Brando moment’ brings the film back into the realm of the familiar story we all know. We see “Stella!”, the opening scene of The Godfather, the aforementioned “Contender” speech and the other moments etched into our collective cultural memory. Without reference to the actual tapes available, it seems like there must have surely been other films or things important to Brando. For example, it would have been great to hear his side of the story of ousting Kubrick from One-Eyed Jacks or anything about his (from all accounts unpleasant) experience of directing for the only time, or even about oddities like his reviled film The Island of Doctor Moreau.
This is a fascinating, often skilfully made film that will attract anyone with a passing interest in the legend, but for better or worse, even more than a decade after his death Brando still feels very much like the author of his own narrative, making this an enjoyable romp through familiar territory.