Listen To Me Marlon is a tell-all documentary, but not in the way that sells copy. There’s none of the tabloid curiosities, none of the wild speculation that characterized his life in the public eye, there’s actually very little speculation at all—a rarity when watching a film made about a man in absentia. Instead there is only Marlon Brando himself, in his own words, taken from private recordings he made by himself and for himself, there to walk us through a private tour of his inner life. Maybe it would be more accurate to call the approach of Listen To Me Marlon all-tell, and not tell-all.
Many of the elements that fuel the public fascination with Marlon Brando go untouched in this film—Brando’s purported bisexuality, his health troubles as he aged—but director Stevan Riley’s approach to the material makes gossip irrelevant. If there are particular aspects of Marlon Brando’s outsized personal life that fans feel attached to, they can exist alongside the film. What Listen To Me Marlon has to offer is different and in some ways better than a simple clarification of facts. This film instead aims to clarify our view of Brando’s nature. With Brando’s audio recordings as our guide—found among his belongings and never before heard—we wade through the depths of Brando’s mind. Brando offers himself to the microphone, and it proves as enticing as when he offered himself to the camera.
Though Riley did do interviews as a means to prepare for this film, none of those interviews are included in the film. There are no attempts to provide context outside of the context that Brando himself offers. Riley doesn’t condescend to tell us through other people how complex Marlon Brando was, though if you ask him he’ll freely admit that approaching Brando as a subject was a challenge as a filmmaker. To Riley’s credit, he handles that ambiguity by allowing us to experience Brando for ourselves. So even if the film is not always a perfect document of facts, it does appear to be a document of how Marlon Brando might have wanted his life presented, and in that case, it is a fascinating object.
What we’re given borders on Brando as philosopher. We hear his thoughts, often contradictory, on the nature of acting, of the world, of himself, his father, his mother, his children. Theories about acting, theories about America, theories about humanity. His meditation methods. His reflections on psychoanalysis.
The effect of all this deep thinking means that the film can be a bit stuffy—we are after all giving ourselves over completely to the psyche of an actor—but Brando himself proves to be so contradictory that it would be hard to say the film fawns over him as so many of these kinds of posthumous reconstructions do. In the moments when I felt most stifled, I found myself wishing that there was someone behind the camera who was more willing to engage with the sensuality of Brando as a cinematic figure, and certainly there were times when I was curious to hear from the people who might have been hurt by Brando’s reckless abandon. But in choosing to support Brando’s words without distinction, Riley gives you room to decide what you feel about what Brando is actually saying. You might be frustrated, you might be confused, you might be moved—but the film makes no attempts to simplify or apologize for Brando’s beliefs and behavior.
Perhaps the best footage—besides the surreal digital imprint of Brando’s head that opens the film—is a scene where we watch Brando at his physical peak in front of the camera doing a screen test with a female camera operator. He looks just off the camera at her, as in voiceover his older self explains his attraction to cinema as a medium for expression. As Brando describes cinema as the science of registering human emotion through the face, we watch him flirt with the woman behind the screen. It’s a powerful image and one that the film flits away from maybe too quickly.
Maybe unsurprisingly, it’s the scenes like these that directly approach Brando’s acting that register best, as we get to listen to an icon dissect his theories of performance while watching him engaged in the performances that made him iconic. In its best moments, Listen To Me Marlon creates a distance between sound and image that makes use of the cinematic apparatus while articulating theories about the apparatus itself.
The downside of this purposefully one-sided approach is that there aren’t many opportunities to show what the effects of living with Brando might have been like, but speaking to Rebecca Brando, his daughter, there is a palpable sense of relief that such a document exists that tries to understand her father’s better nature.
“I’ve had experiences where you’ve just dealt with the people who have published books that are so inaccurate, that have only concentrated on the negative issues with my father and in my family,” Rebecca told The Daily Beast. “And so you’re hoping and you’re crossing your fingers that these people will deliver.”
It’s an element of public life that often gets forgotten. What is most pleasurable for audiences to consume—the tragedies and trials of stardom—is rarely what is most pleasurable to live, and it’s not only the stars themselves who have to endure the dark times. If Listen To Me Marlon sometimes has the feeling of being the “official,” non-juicy version of the story, it also has the feeling of a legacy being restored to its rightful hands. The Brando family has endured the darkness. It’s a pleasure to see them brought into the light.