Of all the great actors of the classic age of Hollywood (or as they are known to me, the members of the Vogue rap), Marlon Brando is perhaps the most fascinating. This is mostly because compared to the rest, we know so little about him. Save for a few famed scandals (the rejecting of the Oscar, the murder trial of his son), large portions of his intensely private life we just know nothing about. And whereas you can suss out some actors through the characters they play, this is far less possible for someone with as much range and talent as Brando.
Luckily for us, and for the director of Listen to Me Marlon, he kept extensive audio recordings of himself, and it is these that make up the backbone of this film.
Actually, ‘backbone’ suggests a solidity that this film does not have. The film occasionally uses a 3-D rendering of his face, recorded for one of his later roles, and makes it mouth the words of his tapes. This BrandoBot, as well as being the USP of the film, also acts as a metaphor for it.We get occasional glimpses of what we believe to be, but it is merely one image created out of tiny little fragments that often devolve into static.
Take those tapes. They are chopped and edited together to allow Brando to ostensibly tell his own story. This is a fresh and inventive way to replace the traditional voiceover, but it comes with its own problem; you have to make do with what you have.
If Brando on the tapes does not smoothly transition from one part of his life to another, then neither can the film. This can occasionally make for some jarring tonal shifts, such as when the film goes from Brando discussing his role in civil rights activism to his love of Tahiti. Two important parts of the Brando story, but one does not aid the other, especially with the hints of a race fetishism apparent whenever Brando talks about the island.
At other times, however, the contrasts work supremely effectively. One sequence juxtaposes a newsreel voiceover discussing Brando’s ’70s Hollywood comeback with footage of him curled in the foetal position on a balcony in Last Tango in Paris. At once, this suggests his acting prowess, his deep vulnerability and his hate-tolerate relationship with Hollywood.
The result is a fresh new take on the Hollywood hagiography, but not one that completely removes itself from the trappings of that medium. Warts and all this is not. Brando’s compulsion to overeat as a reaction to his childhood trauma is only vaguely mentioned, and almost nothing is said of his later films of what Nathan Rabin called his ‘Great Gazoo’ period, where as Rabin put it:
Brando stopped listening to directors and assistants and his always fuzzy conception of common sense and began taking orders directly from The Great Gazoo, the effeminate green space alien only Fred Flinstone could see.
Perhaps this is an acceptable price to pay, though. Director Stevan Riley could hardly have gotten the access he did to those audio tapes if he was planning a character assassination, and those recordings are a fascinating insight into the process and peculiarities of perhaps the greatest screen actor of all time.