Marlon Brando is Vito Corleone, he is Terry Malloy, he is Stanley Kowalski. The legendary actor is best known for the iconic roles that he portrayed on the big screen. A large part of that was because he preferred his privacy. But in the new documentary “Listen to Me Marlon,” director Stevan Riley pieces together never before heard audio recordings from Brando. While the film offer’s insights into the great actor’s life and career, it fails to be as revolutionary as its subject.
It’s a little disappointing because the film starts off on such an interesting note. The first recording that we hear is one where Brando describes the aftermath of him digitally scanning his face into a computer so that his image will be preserved and what that could potentially mean for the future of acting. It is accompanied by a digitized image of the actor’s face mouthing the words. It was definitely a surprising way to start the documentary, and while jarring at first, it certainly grabs your attention. After that, even though the film does go back to the digitized Brando a few times, things fall into a traditional pattern of bio documentaries.
Clips, stills and panning shots of potential rooms and locations of Brando’s life serve as the images to the narration of Brando’s words. Even though it is a joy to see the magnificent Brando in some of his most famous roles once again, in most cases it is something we’ve seen before. I’m not going to say that I have a better idea for how to make it more interesting, but after a unique start it was a little disappointing to see the film revert back to the norm.
Unfortunately, this never heard audio is also kind of routine. The film and the recordings are structured to essentially chronicle the trajectory of Brando’s career. There are a few interesting insights into his opinions on Stella Adler, the emergence of the method, and his reputation for delays on movies like “Mutiny on the Bounty” and “Apocalypse Now,” but otherwise there isn’t anything of great note revealed about his career.
The more interesting things are the personal side of it; his relationship with his father and his children. That peels back the roles that we know him and reveals a more troubled childhood and his strenuous relationship with his father that in the public eye he would try to at least make tolerable. We also get a little bit about the tragic events that befell his children, though that is more told through archival news footage.
The most interesting recordings that are used are the meditations that Brando would do, talking to himself in a way that lends the film its title. This is as good a look into the man as the film offers. How he handled the stresses of being a star, his method, all the things that made him tick.
“Listen to Me Marlon” removes a layer and opens up Marlon Brando in a way that he never had before, but it is clear from these recordings – of which there are apparently 300 hours worth – that there is even more to him that we may never be able to fully understand. As for the documentary itself; Riley presents it as to be expected, and unfortunately that is its biggest fault, that it portrays a man who was anything but expected in the most routine way possible.