Listen to Me Marlon' is an unusual approach to an extraordinary subject

Director Stevan Riley combines new technology with archival footage and audio to tell actor's story

Monday August 17, 2015 04:00 am EDT

"I've had my head digitized," is the first thing we hear Marlon Brando say in Listen to Me Marlon, a new documentary about the famously reclusive and enigmatic actor. A moment later, the screen shifts from blank to the results of that digitization. An eerie, monochrome, computerized head, as somber and uncanny as a death mask, appears and runs through a number of different actorly expressions — from happy to angry to sad — before speaking a few lines of Shakespeare. This is just one example of a scene in a documentary that takes an unusual approach to an extraordinary subject.

For the film, British documentarian Steven Riley had access to the hundreds of hours of audiotape that Brando made throughout his life, long monologues spoken into a microphone as a form of diary and therapy. Instead of using a narrator or title cards as a typical documentary might, Riley allows Brando to narrate his own life, to tell his own story. The audio is paired with archival film and photographs, much of it never seen before. The result of this simple technique is an immersive, surprisingly dreamlike, surreal atmosphere, one that seems miles away from the straight-forward, "just-the-facts" approach of a typical documentary. (The digitized head, which appears briefly throughout the film, certainly adds to the "surreal" aspect). Brando's head, we discover, was a complicated thing.

Brando was born and raised in rural Nebraska by two alcoholic parents. The shadow of abuse and neglect from his brutal, difficult father is something that haunted him throughout his troubled life. In one scene, we see Brando as a young man enjoying the first years of his success: he's on one of those This Is Your Life-type TV shows, and they've also invited his father. The atmosphere is genial but tense, and at one point, Brando jokes about no longer being afraid of his father because he's able to beat him up. It's seemingly a typical "I can take down the ol' man now" joke, but it's easy to read the years of sublimated rage, monumental tension, and fear in both of their faces. "Show, don't tell," is famous advice to creatives, and it's clearly a tip that director Riley took to heart.

We examine many of the significant aspects of Brando's life in a similar vein: his apprenticeship with famed acting teacher Stella Adler and his early unprecedented success as Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire. The film also explores his womanizing, a growing discomfort with fame, and the terrible violent tragedies that befell his son and daughter in spite of his best efforts to protect them from the sort of domestic savagery he experienced under his own father. It's captivating stuff.

Riley fills in gaps with reenactments. When Brando describes his home life, there's no way for the audience to know if the black-and-white-filmed shots of the people we're seeing in the home are archival or recreations. Is it his actual home in Nebraska or a stand-in in the Hollywood hills? It's a common 21st-century technique, a blending of fictive and actual elements, but one that may stick in the craw of some viewers and make them feel slightly disoriented and distrustful of other scenes. And the film moves chronologically, but in the long, busy, eventful life we often gloss over nuts-and-bolts biographical details that would help us understand how and why things unfolded exactly as they did.

Still, Listen to Me Marlon is a fascinating glimpse into the mind of one of the greatest, and most private actors of all time. "Actors don't act," Brando tells us at one point. "The audience does the acting, the audience does the feeling." To watch Listen to Me Marlon is to feel the truth of that. (4 out of 5 stars)

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