When actor and celebrity Marlon Brando died aged eighty in 2004, what was not widely known was his collection of recordings of his own thoughts, captured on many reels of tape and cassettes over the course of many decades. He used these to set his mind straight, to preserve an account of his musings, and as self-hypnosis for the purposes of relaxation and psychological wellbeing, though whether the latter actually worked was another matter. This documentary features no talking heads or narration, it simply brings together extracts of over two hundred hours of Brando’s audio and allows him to be the guide through his own life for the benefit of those interested, summing up his mass of contradictions in one place…
Brando could be many things, but reliable he was not, yet with this film director Stevan Riley and his co-screenwriter Peter Ettedgui assembled what was a surprisingly coherent picture of a man who was different things to different people, depending on who you spoke to. He could be funny, affectionate, maddening, tragic, many aspects in one mind which you could argue was what made him so riveting as an actor, yet by the point he had lived to his eightieth year, there was a whole section of the world of pop culture consumers for whom Brando had squandered his talent at best, or at worst had never been as good as his reputation. Here you could sense a need to do justice to his abilities and convey precisely why he was so influential.
He arguably changed screen acting forever, and seems to recognise that in some of his comments; he loved the cinema growing up, and never dreamed he could be as iconic as a Clark Gable, James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart, but on arriving in New York in the nineteen-forties he drifted into acting thanks to the tutelage of the great acting teacher Stella Adler, her roots in Jewish theatre of Europe providing the basis for Brando’s search for truth in his characters and what they could put across to an audience. It’s cheering to hear him say after leaving the stage when a performance had gone well that he felt “like a million bucks”, especially when in his latter years when it felt as if he had said all he needed to say he was doing it strictly for the large salaries he could command.
That feeling he was pulling a fast one over moviemakers he worked with, and by extension us in the audience watching him, proved difficult to shake, and his playful side could curdle into a lack of professionalism when he stopped being offered more prestigious roles. Even before that, there were parts that seemed beneath him, as for every Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar (which he was peculiarly embarrassed by as he believed he had failed in it) or Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (which cemented both his own legend and the huge upheaval in screen acting he kicked off) there would be the stolid Napoleon in Desiree or the baffling casting as Japanese in Teahouse of the August Moon, which he performed because he wanted to try comedy. This touched on his biggest roles, but tended to dance around the major occasions in his timeline.
An intensely private man, this too offered a contradiction when he was such a focus for attention, not surprising when everyone on the planet is wondering what is going on in your head. But he would be forced into the public eye, such as for his belief in civil rights which ranged from the helpful (standing alongside Martin Luther King in supporting the struggle of the African Americans) or rather absurd (hiring an actress to pretend to be an American Indian and refuse his Oscar for The Godfather on the big night). But the tragedy was there, according to this because of his dysfunctional early years – alcoholic mother who died an early death and physically abusive father – which saw his son Christian murder the boyfriend of his daughter Cheyenne, propelling Brando back into having to address his life once again, and obviously distressed at doing so. It was a mammoth task to encapsulate the star’s entire existence in a one hour and forty minute documentary, and you could argue they both packed too much in and left too much out, but for what it was Listen To Me Marlon was both a valuable record and a welcome reminder of a man who it’s easy to forget, thanks to his own self-sabotage, shifted the world of culture on its axis, and we can still see how he affected it to this day, brought out here with some skill.