The film by Stevan Riley is told through a collection of personal tapes Brando had recorded over the years, juxtaposed against footage, clips and pictures from the relevant portions in his life. The film finds a nice balance between his personal life, activism and acting, touching on many of his films from his debut through Superman.
The appeal of a documentary like this, where there is almost no outside commentary on the subject, is you hope the voice that we do get is candid and honest. Thankfully, Brando’s commentary on his career is very fair and not that defensive. Sure, he is always on his side, but he doesn’t come across as someone who thinks they were some perfect angel. Brando is also almost always brutally honest when it comes to his films, bashing the ones he thought were garbage and happy to take lots of credit when he thought he deserved it.
While hearing Brando talk about his films is some insider stuff we rarely get to hear, I found almost everything else in the film more compelling. I don’t know a whole lot about Brando’s personal life, so the revelations on the tragedies around his children and his strong activism were easily the parts I found most engaging. I knew about his protest when he won the Oscar for The Godfather, but I didn’t know how in the thick of it he was with not just the Native Americans but also Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights battle of the late 60’s.
It was also compelling to hear the back and forth between what the press/public was putting on him and hearing Brando’s side of the story. Of course Brando is going to always be on his own side, but his honesty in other areas makes you wonder how much of a scapegoat he became and how that persona of being such a problem stuck with him. His tapes about Apocalypse Now actually make him come across as a bit heartbroken about how all that went down with Francis Ford Coppola.
The strangest omission of the film is that it doesn’t touch on the last 25 years of his life. I know his best days were behind him and he didn’t do a whole lot of films, but if there are tapes with Brando’s thoughts on the later years in his life I would have liked to hear them. I think the finale of the film also shows how Riley is certainly clearly on the side of Brando in all of this. It hits you with the sympathetic gut punch of his family life, while championing his Godfather/Tango in Paris resurgence. This isn’t a bad thing, but we got a brief glimpse of what a both sides of the argument documentary might look like with some comments from Bernardo Bertolucci threaded in there; and I have to say I think that might have been more compelling of a movie.
Listen to Me Marlon is a solid portrait of one of America’s greatest actors, but a few changes in the format might have made this even more compelling. The access these tapes give us to Brando might be unprecedented, but having the other side of the story more may have allowed for a bit more intrigue. Maybe instead of showing us that digital Brando we could have got a bit more outsider input? In the end what we get is mostly a celebration of Brando’s life, which is more than a worthy focus all on its own.