*This review was originally published at The Film Experience.
The best film of last year’s Hot Docs festival was Robert Greene’s Actress, a rich and moving film about the life of The Wire’s Brandy Burre. It went on to become one of the most praised films of the year; and it’s easy to imagine the same level of acclaim for this year’s buzziest title at the festival, the similarly actor- centric Listen to Me Marlon. As the title suggests, British director Stevan Riley’s film is about Marlon Brando, and it defies any expectation one might have going into a documentary about a deceased actor. That this film has been made is something of a miracle to begin with. Brando apparently recorded more than 200 hours of audiotapes about himself, of which none has been available to the public heretofore. Riley has been granted access to these by Brando’s estate and has assembled and edited them for the voice-over narration of his film. There is no new footage and no interviews shot for this film, only archival material from Brando’s performances, his television interviews and some behind the scenes footage and rare videos of his personal life. The result, a raw and immensely personal look at the actor’s life, is absolutely mesmerizing.
Brando was notorious for being difficult to work with, a fact not lost on a film that never smoothes the rough edges of his personality to offer a hagiographic picture. Rather, like the revolutionary actor himself, Listen to Me Marlon revitalizes the agonizingly tired subgenre of biographical documentaries about artists. Whereas another film might have fallen for the clichés of such films – such as augmenting the existing material with interviews or contextualizing Brando’s significance through external perspectives – Riley gives us Marlon the way he saw himself.
Brando was an outspoken activist, about the entertainment industry and about his political beliefs. He was at the forefront of different social movements, lending his voice and charisma to causes that were personally important to him, but this film offers a much more intimate image of the man. Given the privacy of the tapes, Marlon is unusually candid and open, with a unique perspective and a sense of emotional warmth that is truly remarkable.
Brando’s observations on his own acting, his frustration with the repetitions and predictability of acting styles in cinema at the time and his insecurities about the directions in which his career took him over the years are fascinating to watch. He is refreshingly self-aware and honest about his own artistry and the politics of selecting roles, expressing disappointment and even embarrassment about certain film choices. Equally absorbing are Brando’s poetic ruminations on his troubled childhood and his elegiac reminiscences about his parents, with whom he never fully come to terms. As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly evident that the man who was known as a method actor who immersed himself completely into his performances, brought so much of himself and his wounds into the characters he portrayed.
The distance between the Brando we’ve seen on screen and the man as he introduces himself here becomes progressively smaller, a process that leads to the audience’s total, heartbreaking identification with the actor in the latter stages of the film. It is virtually impossible to watch Brando endure the troubles of his children – his son Christian’s imprisonment for murder and his daughter Cheyenne’s suicide – and stop the tears from rolling down. Such insight and poignancy have only been made possible because Riley affords Brando complete freedom to tell his own story. That the actor has been deceased for many years further lends the film a sense of novelty; yet, the truly astonishing feat is that the director – who also edited the film– accomplishes the gargantuan task of shaping a coherent narrative from the massive treasure trove of information at his disposal so seamlessly that it appears as though we spend two hours with Brando’s stream of consciousness without the presence of a mediator. Listen to Me Marlon sets a new gold standard for documentary biopics and is a film that we will surely hear about a lot at the year’s end.