For Listen to Me Marlon, director Stevan Riley has cobbled together film clips, behind-the-scenes footage, public interviews, and the occasional recreation with a soundtrack that mixes interview snippets with never-before-released confessional recordings, to create a beyond-the-grave autobiography of legendary actor Marlon Brando in his own words. Riley’s act of media-based resurrection is buttressed in the film’s opening moments by a blue-colored digital hologram of Brando’s head presented on a television screen, with the simulation’s lip movements corresponding to the words he uttered on one of those recordings. This ghoulish sight, which will reappear at various points throughout the rest of the film, is made even more so when we hear Brando speculate on the tape that this recording, and by extension this digital recreation, will be the swan song for all of us in the future.
As morbid as the concept might initially seem to some, Riley gradually justifies his overarching stylistic conceit simply by virtue of how candid and insightful Brando is on these tapes. Among the film’s many revelations is the level of self-aware humility the actor exudes while talking about his life and creative process. Even when discussing his eccentric later (post-1972) years, Brando is refreshingly frank about the reasons behind his behavior—how, for instance, after his experiences in Tahiti while filming Mutiny on the Bounty in 1962, he began to desire something beyond acting, something that he thought would make more of a difference in society at large (thus his eventual crusading for civil and Native American rights). Brando proves to be just as articulate discussing his craft as he is in talking about his personal life. Perhaps his most valuable bit in that regard is a passage in which he extols the power of the human face in a performance—which he considers the cinematic equivalent of the theater’s proscenium arch.
But the insights Listen to Me Marlon offer don’t come from just Brando himself. There’s a real directorial hand shaping all of this material, and Riley finds fascinating ways to put all of the video and audio footage together to suggest, among other things, how Brando’s personal life affected his Method approach to acting. An audio snippet of Brando talking about how he thought of his father hitting his mother when trying to dredge up anger during a performance, for instance, is overlaid on a scene in A Streetcar Named Desire in which his Stanley Kowalski throws a tantrum in front of Blanche and Stella DuBois. But Riley also occasionally cuts footage together in ways that contradict what Brando says on the soundtrack. Regarding his soul-baring performance in Last Tango in Paris, Brando never lets on his supposed after-the-fact resentment toward director Bernardo Bertolucci for inspiring him to such brutally frank heights of personal expression; only an interview snippet with Bertolucci that we hear as we see the film’s mournful final image on screen indicates this, as the director says Brando felt “betrayed by me because I had stolen so many sincere things.”
Such moments suggest the film’s own refreshing honesty toward its subject. Though Listen to Me Marlon certainly comes from a place of admiration for this brilliant and mercurial actor, Riley isn’t interested in merely constructing a hagiography. He gives the man’s more reflective side its due: his sometimes-brutal assessment of his own performances, his discomfort with fame, his regrets as a neglectful father after his son, Christian, went to prison for voluntary manslaughter. More than a mere tribute to a great performer, Listen to Me Marlon reveals a flawed yet thoughtful human being as committed to being truthful about his own personal life as he was imparting inner truths as an artist.