By Daniel Barnes
*Now playing at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco, the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley, the Camera 3 in San Jose, and the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.
The best documentary of the year so far. Contrary to the didactic self-inflation and conclusion-based approach of Best of Enemies, Steven Riley’s stunning documentary Listen to Me Marlon practically bursts with a sense of discovery, showing new sides to a man that most of us probably think we know every inch of. A mesmerizing tour through the tortured psyche of Marlon Brando, Listen to Me Marlon takes its shape from several hundred hours of audio recordings that Brando made throughout his life. Smug, scene-stealing interviewees are eschewed in favor of a hypnotic multimedia montage (the only “talking head” here is Brando’s own deteriorated CGI mug, the “future of acting” already crumbling to pixelated dust), an aesthetic also favored by two other recent “emotional autopsy” documentaries about notorious celebs, Amy and Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck.
As was the case with Amy Winehouse in Amy, this approach allows an unguarded Brando to effectively narrate his own life story, and similar to Montage of Heck, the film paints its subject in a new light by drawing on some raw and deeply personal material. But Listen to Me Marlon is an even richer and more revelatory entertainment than Amy and Montage of Heck, partially because the publicly aloof Brando’s life has been always been shadowed by apocryphal stories, and partially because that life really was completely fucking insane.
The Nebraska-born son of an abusive, philandering father and an alcoholic mother, Brando followed an acting bug to New York City and the New School, where he developed a style of stage acting that was so self-destructive and exhausting, he naturally gravitated towards movies and instant icon status. There is a rare nakedness and honesty to Brando here, even when he’s being withholding or contradictory. “I used to love the smell of liquor on her breath,” he says of his mother, a rainy wistfulness in his voice, which Riley immediately contradicts with an audio clip of Brando describing her as the “town drunk,” and the source of much of his childhood shame.
Listen to Me Marlon skillfully demonstrates how Brando’s personal life – his contempt for authority, his resentment towards his parents, his discomfort with fame, his political activism, his intellectual inferiority complex – shaped his style and informed his choices as an actor and as a public figure, but Riley also shows us the wounded, disturbed, petulant, difficult, and often misunderstood man beneath the tall tales and bad behavior. “Life is a rehearsal; life is an improvisation,” narrates Brando, delivering the perfect eulogy for a man who believed that “acting is surviving.”