“Get people to stop chewing”
The above line pertaining to audiences and their popcorn is but one gem of many spoken by acting legend Marlon Brando into a tape recorder. Others—original or quoted—like, “Life’s but a walking shadow,” “You are the memories,” or “Acting is surviving,” each provide a glimpse into his introspection and warring mind between celebrity and humanity. They are what make Listen to Me Marlon as close to an autobiographical documentary as you can get without the subject simply sitting in front of the camera partaking in an extensive one-man interview. Director/co-writer Stevan Riley becomes his editor, sifting through over a hundred hours of audio to craft a 103-minute masterpiece of personal critique and philosophy to prove how Brando was as good in life as he was on-screen.
And by good I mean his civil rights work with African Americans and Native Americans coming at times of professional highs with Academy Award wins and Hollywood at his feet. With success, however, also comes tragedy whether in discovering the truth about his relationship with a brawler father and drunk mother masked by faux love in the public eye to his own children’s troubles through bad divorces and a culture clash between California and Tahiti, the latter his escape from existential woes and materialism. He retreated into isolation and paradise so as to avoid a damning spotlight that risked ruining his family and emotional health, but it often appears such strife couldn’t be prevented. The inevitability of that pain was what kept bringing him back.
Because the steady stream of consciousness—a sort of poetry over Stefan Wesolowski‘s score—was audio only, Riley was given carte blanche as to what we’d be shown visually beneath it. With full support of Brando’s estate, he splices in scenes from the actor’s work, press interviews, photos, and even the eerie, digital likeness of his face scanned into a computer before his death animated into orator of long forgotten thoughts. The words themselves are edited from differing years of his diaries, the sound quality and vocal quality shifting from clear to raspy as relevant words are moved to build an intimate monologue from beyond the grave. It’s similar to how Brett Morgan‘s Montage of Heck utilized Kurt Cobain‘s written words and doodles, but even more personal and profound.
The fact there was enough material to keep it all about him—save sound bytes of Stella Adler, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Francis Ford Coppola in context and from the era described rather than newly-shot documentary—is uniquely stirring because we aren’t trusting outside sources to understand who Marlon Brando was. This doesn’t mean he himself had a strong handle on his own identity since regrets in fatherhood and in marriage are obvious, but at least it’s as authentic as one can get. Despite his talk about acting equaling lying and art and cinema being antitheses, you feel his words are coming from a place too deep to be affected as ruse. He didn’t leave these tapes as a fabricated tell-all. They were for his ears only and thus without artifice.
Credit Riley and co-writer Peter Ettedgui for having the patience and trust to keep it unfiltered, their roles becoming more anthologists than storytellers. Listen to Me Marlon isn’t their story to tell and they’ve embraced this realization. They are facilitators, curators bringing clarity and cohesion to self-hypnosis sessions and late night memories of a roller coaster life. We hear Brando talk about his struggle Method acting roles—reaching within to relive the horrors of his childhood watching Dad beat Mom for the anger necessary to impress onscreen. The man himself couldn’t have been further from that visage; or at least not the one he put on tape. If something is missing here it’s a behind the scenes look at his personal relationships beyond their sad, tragic ends.
But when the format is this personal, you cannot fault the filmmakers for leaving that stuff out. This project isn’t about airing dirty laundry as much as finding truth outside the celebrity mystique we’ve projected Marlon Brando as in life and death. The way he was—the womanizing, the tormented soul, and the running away—is acknowledged due to the hardships he endured and never could leave behind. That’s not an excuse and I don’t think he used it as one once we see his heartfelt breakdowns talking about Christian and Cheyenne (the other reported fifteen children he fathered aren’t mentioned). Like most tortured artists, Brando never could truly escape the pain of past or present. What other reason would he have had to make these tapes?