To hear Marlon Brando tell it on audiotape, he was the sole force in transforming the character he played in “Apocalypse Now”, Col. Kurtz, into a creation of legendary status, re-imagining the part, re-writing the lines, even setting up the lighting. Of course, Francis Ford Coppola might beg to differ, and we do see a clip in which a news anchor suggests that Coppola does, but that’s tangential – the only voice we truly hear in “Listen to Me Marlon” is Marlon Brando’s; hence the title. He’s in conversation with himself as much as he is with us. Documentaries are prone to employing talking heads but the only talking head “Listen to Me Marlon” employs is a 3D animation of its principal subject's head (looking like outtakes from “Superman: The Movie”), an emblematic conceit if there ever was one.
Steven Riley’s documentary is born from an untraditional device – that is, hundreds of hours of personal audio tapes recorded by Brando himself. Although the film also draws from clips of his performances, revolutionary, incendiary and otherwise, and more formal interviews, it is these rambling monologues that give “Listen to Me Marlon” its backbone. He called these recordings “self hypnosis.” He was trained, as the movie recounts, in the school of Stella Adler, the famed Method tutee who preached that actors should draw significantly from their own past to inform their present performances. In a way, that’s what these pseudo self-help messages come across – as Brando drawing on his past to consider how he got where he is and who he has become and where he might be going.
When these were recorded is never conveyed. Brando’s voice shifts throughout the film from younger to older, poetic and weary, and we never know quite where we are in his own personal accounts. This imbues the film with a stream-of-consciousness sensation, opening a page to Marlon Brando’s personal diary and leaping in. And for a man so spontaneously combustible in his best performances, this matches up to the documentary’s atmosphere, one that just sort of comes at you in undulating waves, where even if you can’t quite grasp what he’s saying or why he’s saying it, you remain compelled to listen.
So many documentaries take sides and you would expect a documentary about a particular man narrated, in a sense, by that particular man to be nothing but one-sided. Yet it’s not. Brando comes across almost gravely in touch with his failings as a father and clearly stricken with what he viewed as a meaningless to his professional trade. That he yearned to make some sort of a difference beyond art’s escapism is clear and this is tied back to decisions like sending a faux-native American to accept his second Oscar for “The Godfather.” Riley is sure to indulge in shots of a skeptical audience but he never treats Brando’s ardor for the issues with condescension.
Brando expresses a genuine guilt about America’s role in more or less exterminating the natives who came before and, more than anything, guilt is what you get from his recordings. He was an emotionally torn-apart man and the emotions that he so ably captured on the big screen come across as being of little consequence to him.
There are a few moments near the beginning when Brando seems genuinely smitten by acting. “You want to stop that movement of popcorn to the mouth,” he remarks. “You do that with the truth.” But as his career progresses and his star rises, he more or less turns his back on the trade, dismissing acting as nothing more than lying, a disheartening admission from one of the profession's true titans. Still, the footage Riley employs makes it hard for Brando’s prowess not to be seen, and whether its conjurer believed in its emotional truth or not, it’s still there, forever and ever, for the rest of us to behold. Brando may not have thought much of his “I coulda been a contender” speech, but when you see it yet again in “Listen to Me Marlon”, you stop that movement of popcorn to your mouth.