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Film Review

Listen to Me Marlon

Has there ever been a more talented, complex, troubled and enigmatic film actor than Marlon Brando? And more influential? Yet the last third of his life was spent in seclusion and dealing with tragedies of his own. His career was like a comet, which began in a blaze, burned brightly, then went dark for a long period. Most of what we know about Brando comes from Hollywood and tabloid sources, which have always delighted in the difficulties of celebrities and are rarely accurate. But unlike any other actor, Brando left an extensive audio diary, a cache of 200 hours of audio tapes that are remarkably candid, self critical and analytic. Brando died in 2004. Nearly ten years later his estate gave this trove of tapes and other archival material to a director, Stevan Riley, to shape into a documentary film, Listen to Me Marlon. Very few documentaries, about anyone, have ever been based on what is essentially an audio diary. The tapes contain introspection and analysis that would have been impossible to obtain by speaking with even close friends and family.

Stevan Riley is a young British filmmaker and writer with a few sports related documentaries (Blue Blood, Fire in Babylon) to his credit. He not only directs but usually writes his own scripts. Riley's films have received a number of important awards yet he is not well known in the US. Listen to Me Marlon will change that. About one third of the film is excerpts from the tapes, often with a reconstructed (in London) interior of Brando's Hollywood house, which is where he recorded the tapes. Other times Riley uses weird digital images of Brando, done during his lifetime. The tapes give the film a stream of consciousness quality that is unusual for a documentary. Essentially, Brando narrates the film through the tapes. Riley also uses lengthy clips from Brando's many films, some very memorable: "I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum…" and "STELLA!" and "Nobody tellsl me what to do. You keep needling' me, if I want to, I'm gonna take this joint apart…" and "You're an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill" and more. These scenes still have enormous power, tribute to Brando. But there are also clips from awful films that Brando did, films that he hated but did for the money, he confesses. He is consistently scathing and hypercritical about himself in these tapes. Good home movie clips are lighter but fascinating as well.

A particularly interesting segment features Stella Adler, the legendary acting teacher who brought the Method program to America and transformed acting into something far more realistic. Adler's interviews are fascinating and Brando expresses great appreciation for her mentoring which transformed him. There are clips of interviews with Brando, often by attractive women, in which he shamelessly flirts with them. Some are derailed by this. Brando recognizes his nearly obsessive attraction for and to women, and indeed ended up with 3 marriages and a long term relationship with his housekeeper. He had 12 biological children and adopted 3 more, none of which is mentioned in the film. The greatest tragedies of his life involved his children, which is detailed in the film through the use of tabloid headlines and newscasts. It gives a sleaziness to the events which are already terrible, but perhaps Riley intended to illustrate how most people understood Brando. His celebrated refusal to accept an Oscar is shown, along with the refusal speech given by an American Indian activist in tribal costume. Riley touches on the highly publicized delays in films that were blamed on Brando by various directors, such as Francis Ford Coppola. In fact he felt that Coppola had betrayed him. Brando remained contemptuous of Hollywood, for mostly good reasons, yet made a great deal of money. Mutiny on the Bounty is discussed at length, and the decision to film in Tahiti changed Brando's life.

There is so much packed into Listen to Me Marlon. Brando appeared in at least 39 roles, some icons of American film. Yet you end up concluding that Brando's life was a constant but largely unsuccessful struggle for the love and approval of his abusive father. No one seriously interested in film should miss this. Because of the wonderful film clips, see it on the big screen. The music is lyric, with much by the director, resembling a Terrence Malick soundtrack. Riley has done an extraordinary job here: directed, edited, and composed the music. I loved this powerful film, which will surely be a strong contender for best documentary. That is no faint praise in a year of outstanding documentaries. Just opened at Opera Plaza, the Rafael, the Shattuck (Berkeley), and Camera 3 (San Jose). Running time: 102 minutes.

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