The profile documentary has, over the past few years, become so chained to its tiresome tropes (the mournful talking heads, the done-to-death clips, the ponderously fill-in-the-blanks narration) that a stylistic backlash was probably inevitable. At least, that’s the only explanation I can conjure up for how 2015 has given us three profile docs that are not only structurally innovative, but uncommonly personal—telling the stories of groundbreaking artists in their own words, via materials not yet in the public sphere.
First came Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck , assembled from private journals, audio diaries, and home movies. Also in music, a treasure trove of private videos, along with demos and studio footage, form the backbone of Amy . And now we have Stevan Riley’s riveting and insightful Listen to Me Marlon, in which Marlon Brando tells his own life story.
He’s able to do so thanks to the discovery by his estate of a box of tapes — over 300 hours of private recordings, dating back to the 1960s. “My dad would talk into his Dictaphone, you know, those little tape recorders,” Brando’s daughter Rebecca says. “He would record and talk into them quite often and I’d never see him actually — or hear him — say what he would say onto these tapes, but I would definitely see him and sometimes I would walk into the room and he’d stop talking. So, I never knew what he was saying.”
She does now. The film opens on a note of prescience — Brando’s image, fed into a computer and animated to sync up with the recording, as he predicts a future for cinema where “they’ve got it all on digital and actors aren’t gonna be real… so maybe this is gonna be the swan song for all of us.” He then proceeds to explain his desire to create “a highly personalized documentary on the life activities of myself, Marlon Brando,” giving instructions for such a film — directing it, if you will, from the grave.
The tapes, some of them audio journals, some of them affirmations, some self-hypnosis, are candid and critical; he discusses his doubts, his womanizing, his disengagement from acting. But some of the best material, unsurprisingly, is his deconstruction of his performance philosophy; he likens acting to prizefighting, comparing his style to that of Jersey Joe Walcott, who “would never let you know where he’s gonna hit you,” imploring the unknown listener to “Hit em! Knock ‘em over! Figure out a way to do it that has never been done before!”
It’s all moving and inspiring, but Brando also seems keenly aware that talent isn’t enough; he knows how much of his breakthrough was a matter of fortuitous timing, being the right actor at the right time, a new kind of performer for an audience that felt, as he did, that film acting had reached a point where “everything is cliché.” And he breaks his process and technique down to its most basic element: curiosity about people.
“If I brought a friend over,” Rebecca Brando recalls, “he would always say, Why do you think he’s so quiet? Why do you think he smiles all the time? What is that about? What do you think he’s thinking? Every time I think I would come home to see my dad, he would say What are you thinking right now? I’ll give you a penny for your thoughts. He was just interested, Why are you placing your hand on you shoulder? Do you know that you raise one finger up as you rest your fingers on your shoulder? So, the fact that he was just so curious about people and the way they behaved, what their feelings were, what their thoughts were – that’s what kind of drove him and motivated to help people in the world, and he was always a fighter for those people were oppressed and treated unjustly. So, he definitely was his neighbors’ keeper.”
Director Riley doesn’t just lean on the tapes — he gingerly navigates the story, making deliberate and specific choices about when to go back to Brando’s troubled childhood, intercutting the narration with interview snippets that underscore the dialogue between his words and his private thoughts. And the clips from Brando’s work aren’t just the typical “greatest hits” reel; they act as counterpoint and dramatization. (The most ingenious example: the physical brawls in Mutiny on the Bounty are used to illustrate his descriptions of fights with that film’s director and studio — and with authority figures in general.)
The single voice of authority has its drawbacks, of course; Brando’s claim that “I rewrote the entire script of Apocalypse Now” runs contrary to pretty much all the information available about one of the most documented movies of all time, and no one’s on hand to counter it. (That said, Riley chose to include it — perhaps knowing the value of letting such a gross over-exaggeration stand.) But the style creates something of greater value: a hypnotically intimate work that leaves the viewer feeling as though we know the person rather than the actor or the legend.
Brando’s daughter walked out of its first Sundance screening because “I was overwhelmed with emotion… it was as though Steven Riley, the director, had brought my dad back from the grave, from the afterlife.” Rebecca Brando acknowledges that no film, or biography, or even autobiography can fully capture any person in all their complexity. But Listen to Me Marlon left her with “a sense of relief that he was finally — they captured the man, the person I knew. And he wasn’t this rebellious person who just tried to make things difficult for people on stage and he wasn’t this argumentative person. They captured the side of my father who was out to always help the underdog, to help the vulnerable, and although he had this traumatic event happen in our lives, he prevailed and continued to be a father, he continued to make movies, he continued to try to fight for the underdog, and he continued his human activism.” He was a brilliant, talented, complicated man — and Listen to Me Marlon is a film worthy of its subject.
Listen to Me Marlon is out today in New York. It will appear in more markets next month and will air on Showtime later this year.