Early on in Stevan Riley’s documentary Listen To Me Marlon, we are shown brief images of a young Marlon Brando messing around with his friends, laughing manically, playing pranks, mugging for the camera; the footage is grainy but hypnotic. Unquestionably beautiful, Brando appears playful, funny and sweet—a bitter contrast to the Brando with whom the public became familiar in his later years. Riley highlights this contrast in excruciating detail. The dreamlike quality of the scenes encompassing Brando’s youth and early days as an actor are juxtaposed with harsh digital footage of a grossly overweight Brando weeping for his dead daughter at an intrusively public press-conference.
This is not to say that Riley brushes over the hardships of his subject’s early years. One sequence involves Brando recounting the way he and his father deceived the public with a facade of intimacy that concealed the years of abuse Brando and his mother had suffered at his father’s hands. This contributes to the enormous depths of self-loathing that Brando lived with, and that ultimately led him to pursue acting, seeking approval that was not provided by his home-life. Self-loathing, the search for validation, rage, and artistic fulfillment all seem to weigh heavily on Brando’s mind as he addresses the tape recorders that become the basis for Riley’s avant-garde portrait of the actor. Drawing on Brando’s own personal audio diaries and recordings of his therapy sessions ensures this is far from a conventional biography. Instead, it is a haunting eulogy for a deeply troubled man.
Riley’s decision to allow Brando’s own words to serve as narration for his film, and to eschew typical documentary tools such as talking heads, allows the audience a unique, intimate insight into a man who garnered infamy for his obsession with privacy. With such a wealth of footage, it also pinpoints some of the inconsistencies in Brando’s scattered mind. His opinion on acting seems to range from considering it a deeply personal, exhausting means of self-expression to an easy way to line his pockets. Hearing Brando describe the autobiographical elements of Last Tango In Paris, it is understandable that he gravitated from the former to the latter as time went on.
Though the audio elements of Listen To Me Marlon are undoubtedly the most appealing, Riley shows a real flair for matching imagery with narration. The bulk of the film uses archival footage, and scenes such as Brando describing the basis of method-acting, which are played over carefully-selected clips of his performances, are particularly compelling. As well as providing an insight into the mind of one of Hollywood’s biggest enigmas, Listen To me Marlon also touches on larger ideas, such as the often-close relationship between unhappiness and creativity, an idea that was similarly explored in Jeff Feuerzeig’s The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a film that also shone a light on a famously troubled artist.
Though Listen To Me Marlon has no pretense of being an all-encompassing biopic, there are some notable details of Brando’s life that are conspicuously absent. Namely, Brando’s position as a queer icon and his open admissions to bisexual tendencies go unmentioned. Although it never seemed as if Brando believed this aspects of his life were of great importance, he spoke openly about them throughout his life, and it seems odd that those unfamiliar with Brando might leave this film without an understanding of how he challenged heteronormative culture in a way that was simultaneously groundbreaking and nonchalant. It is perhaps out of respect, however, that Riley declines to include any footage from Brando’s career nadir: The 1996 disaster The Island of Dr. Moreau.