Editor’s Note: Listen to Me Marlon is currently playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.
It would be incredibly easy to construct a documentary about Marlon Brando that highlights his infamous hard-headedness on set, his insatiable appetite and the invaluable contribution he made to modern acting. Stevan Ridley includes these and other things in Listen to Me Marlon, a new documentary about the two-time Oscar-winning artist, but what sets this apart from the multitudes of Hollywood documentaries on Netflix doomed to be watched as lullabies in the wee hours of the morning is that it avoids focusing on just the eccentricities and reveals a fully realized portrait of a real person with real, complex emotions.
The beats may be familiar, but Brando’s voice-over musings reveal new depth and insight into the life of a Hollywood icon.
The main selling point for Listen to Me Marlon has been the discovery of private audio diaries recorded by Brando himself. Such a thing is usually no more than a gimmick in lesser documentaries, but its presence here does not disappoint. Ridley abandons the traditional, well-tread avenue of the talking heads documentary and instead builds a narrative from hours of recordings of Marlon revealing his innermost thoughts on all things Brando. To be fair, the film doesn’t entirely rely on the newly found recordings of Brando to tell its story. News reports, dramatic reenactments of letters and archived television interviews are utilized to provide a more discernible narrative and fill in the gaps.
The usual time periods are covered (birth, rise to fame, mid-career struggles, latter-year quirks, eventual seclusion), but none of these chapters play as though they are being covered out of obligation. The beats may be familiar, but Brando’s voice-over musings reveal new depth and insight into the life of a Hollywood icon. Just as if not more interesting are deep cuts, the stuff that isn’t talked about as often. Listen to Me Marlon dedicates a generous amount of time to Brando’s dedication to civil rights, highlighting his support for both Native Americans and the black community. In one of the film’s many intimate revelations, Brando speaks on how he believes he could be killed (much like MLK, of whom Brando was a big fan, was) for speaking his mind.
Hearing the actor talk at length is worth of the price of admission alone. . .
It’s these revelations and others like it that make a strong case for Listen to Me Marlon being the definitive documentary on Brando. Hearing the actor talk at length is worth of the price of admission alone, with Ridley offering up gem after gem of eloquence and self-analysis. Hearing Marlon dismiss his Oscar-winning performance in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront as garbage is humorously ironic and fascinatingly revelatory. Other interesting dropped gems include a incredibly silly reason for choosing to do Guys and Dolls, always viewing life as acting practice, hopes to eventually quit acting altogether and his fondness for Tahiti. Such a level of intimacy and off-the-cuff remarks is of a caliber rarely seen in filmmaking of this kind.
We are also gifted with insight into Brando’s private life, his troubled son who was sent to jail, animosity remaining from previous marriages, his troubled daughter who would eventually take her own life. It is in these moments that Ridley’s vision and intentions become clearer than ever. The film opens and closes with news reports of a shooting at Brando’s secluded residence, showing the internal pain and anguish that Brando suffered. Combined with Brando’s commentary and revelations about his upbringing, Listen to Me Marlon ultimately becomes a Shakespearian tale about sins being passed from one generation to the next. Ridley falls prey to the usual documentary cliches (sometimes the scoring is too heavy and the transitions too on the nose) and his excessive utilization of a holographic Brando is completely unnecessary and doesn’t really work, but it’s hard to deny that Ridley has made an extremely compelling and unforgettable film.
Listen to Me Marlon may occasionally fall prey to the usual documentary cliches, but remains an extremely compelling and unforgettable film.