Crafted primarily from audio recordings made throughout his lifetime, Listen to Me Marlon is a rare thing: a posthumous, autobiographical documentary, as Marlon Brando details his life and career in his own words.
Brando’s recordings come from a collection of hundreds of hours of personal audio diaries, offering a frank and at times shockingly private insight into the life of the troubled actor. This isn’t Brando as the world saw him, or Brando as he presented himself to the world, but Brando as he saw himself, raw and unpolished.
That rare sense of introspection means that Stevan Riley’s film offers us the actor’s hopes, loves and insecurities, from an enduring fascination with Tahitian culture to a recurring anxiety that he was never smart enough, never educated enough, never intelligent enough. The audience is given access to a vulnerable, damaged Brando, unsure of his place in the world, uncomfortable with his celebrity and its material trappings.
That discomfort manifested in various ways. Some of his various career highs and lows are explained by the knowledge that at times he saw acting as nothing other than a way to make a living, to support his children and fund his carefree existence on a Tahitian island. At other times, frustration with the artistic depths to which he sunk prompted moves in the other direction, as he fought to re-establish his thespian credentials.
Late in life, weight gain caused by emotional eating threatened his attempts at a career resurgence, while crippling his own self-esteem. “Eat your favourite foods,” he tells himself in one personal memo, “just in smaller quantities.”
That clip, and a number of the others, are drawn not from the normal audio diaries, but rather his collection of self-hypnosis tapes, an attempt to quiet his demons and bring calm to his turmoiled mind. Riley uses these moments to full effect, Brando’s voice washing over the screen and the audience. “Listen to me Marlon,” he intones each time, before urging the recollection of some comforting memory or the formation of a new, healthier habit.
With no talking heads or interviews to speak off, the audio recordings form the documentary’s core. Around them Riley layers an assortment of photographs, archive footage from TV appearances over the years and clips from his body of work to contextualise his commentary.
And what a body of work it is. Starting with his early theatre education and breakout role in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, past The Wild One and On the Waterfront, all the way up to his resurgence in Last Tango in Paris, The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, this is a powerful reminder that for all the personal turmoil and reclusive habits, Brando was ever a titan of the cinematic world.
Brando remains sympathetic throughout, even as his early, easy charm gives way to gruff instability. Personal tragedies including the suicide of his young daughter made their mark on the man, driving him further from a society to which he never quite belonged. His difficult final years are touched on, including his frequent refusal to learn his lines, but Riley presents this not as a punchline, but the uncomfortable denouement to a life more troubled than many outside observers knew.
Few documentaries can offer the personal access that Listen to Me Marlon boasts, and fewer still have subjects as rich, fascinating or vital. Brando has long been an icon, but in these recordings Riley has found the man, and his film is a compelling, heartbreaking tale of how one came to become the other, and what was lost along the way.
Words by Dominic Preston