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Listen to Me Marlon - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Listen to Me Marlon
Directing: A-
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A

Listen to Me Marlon is a documentary in a class of its own, curious and fascinating in many different ways and on multiple levels. The conceit is simple: nearly all that is heard is Marlon Brando's own voice, culled from hundreds of hours of his private audio recordings, never before released publicly.

This alone creates a fascinating dichotomy: it's tempting to feel as though we're hearing Brando tell his own story, but editing is what makes a movie -- and really, this is director and co-writer Stevan Riley's vision of Brando telling his own story. Few people watching the film are likely to think of this, but Marlon Brando certainly had a different experience of his own life than the portrait of a screen legend provided by this film. Riley makes us feel very much like we've gone inside Brando's head, but it's not quite that simple. It may be closer to it than anything else available, but it's still more like skirting around the perimeter of his mind with occasional glimpses through passing windows of varying levels of transparency.

The first of many poignant moments comes early in the film, showing Brando in his later years speaking at a rare public appearance, making reference to the way success robs people of their perception of reality. In many ways, Listen to Me Marlon then goes on to demonstrate how this exactly happened to him. This is a guy who ultimately gained a reputation as someone extraordinarily difficult to work with, someone with a massive ego. We hear Brando address this himself occasionally, always confident that whatever difficulties he presented -- such as his many alterations of the script during the production of Apocalypse Now -- actually made the film better.

In the cases of the many great films he was in, perhaps he was right. To this day few people would dispute his status as the greatest American actor in history. This portrait doesn't shy from the many of his lesser works either, though, and they perhaps provide a counter-argument. Brando later became particularly lazy about his performances, resorting to an earpiece in which he was fed his lines. He mentions on his cassette recording that he doesn't even remember the name of the picture, and we don't know what it's from either. The bizarre disaster that was The Island of Dr. Moreau is never even mentioned.

Brando did a lot of weird stuff. He speaks to a lot of it in these recordings, although he doesn't offer that much insight into those choices -- just which roles and films he liked and which he hated. Talk to Me Marlon provides far more insight into Brando's idea of himself, over the course of many years. He had children caught up in the middle of a very bitter, very public divorce. He took up racial inequality activism, and to this day the footage of Sacheen Littlefeather rejecting the Oscar for his role as The Godfather is a sight to behold. The only time Stevan Riley deviates from Brando's own recordings for the audio is when we see occasional clips of interviews, and we see a clip of him explaining that everything Americans learn about Native Americans is from movies and television, which particularly at that time depicted them as savages to be made enemies of. This actually went very far to explain Littlefeather's public reprimand of Hollywood from the Oscar stage. They made an astute point, that far too little people really got.

The story in Talk to Me Marlon is only vaguely linear, in that it focuses more on his early career in the beginning and more on his late career toward the end, with predictable focus on how The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris revitalized a career that had long tanked in the early seventies.

Overall, this is a documentary with a uniquely haunting quality. This begins instantly, the opening shot a visual representation of Brando's recorded monologue about having his entire head scanned to be digitized. He ponders the question of technology rendering actors obsolete. There is no indication of when the recording is from, but it should be noted that Marlon Brando died in 2004. And we see Brando's aged face rendered in white dots on a black background, a retro-computer image of his face as it speaks in sync with the audio of his voice. Riley returns to this image many times through the film, which ultimately shows Marlon Brando to have been a tortured genius. But he was also human, and deluded, and jaded by his own success. If nothing else, even without being able to tell us exactly what it was like to be him, Talk to Me Marlon captures the inherent complexity of being a man of his talent in his position.

Marlon Brando tells his own story in his own words from posthumously released private audio recordings in LISTEN TO ME MARLON.

Overall: B+
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