Listen To Me Marlon is a documentary that I saw on a whim to kill time between two other movies. All I knew was that it was “a documentary about Marlon Brando.” What I saw was one of the most innovative and all-encompassing documentaries that I’ve ever seen.
First of all, Listen To Me Marlon is kind of a bizarre movie. The filmmakers gained access to hundreds of hours of private audio recordings that Brando had made, then used those recordings — Brando’s own voice — to narrate his own posthumous documentary. The bizarre part happens when Brando discusses getting his face digitally scanned, then we see Brando’s digital face talking to us. It’s weird and eerie! (For the first five minutes, I worried the whole film would be like this; thank goodness it wasn’t.)
Brando himself pretty much takes us through his life, sharing insights along the way about his family, some of his most famous movies, and certain tragedies in his life. He expresses contempt for a lot of actors who came before him — Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart are mentioned — accusing them of giving the same performance in every movie. He then explains to us his method, and why it’s so important to keep the audience guessing.
Brando himself takes us through his filmography, from On the Waterfront to Guys and Dolls to how miserable he was filming Mutiny on the Bounty. Brando’s honesty about where his career was in the early ’70s is profound and honest. (To be fair, these were his private tapes, why would he lie?) Brando was embarrassed to have to perform a screen test before he was given his iconic role in The Godfather, but admits he needed the work.
Brando also claims that he completely rewrote Francis Ford Coppola’s script for Apocalypse Now — and he does not hide his contempt for that movie. At all. (Coppola’s side is thankfully presented, too.) It’s not a shocking revelation that Brando dismisses Superman completely. He then explains how, at that point in his career, he didn’t have the time to learn lines, then reveals he wears an earpiece so lines can be fed to him.
I think it’s easy to forget the early Brando. His early movies and performances are certainly not forgotten, but watching some of these early interviews with Brando that are presented in the film, it’s almost shocking how charming, interesting and downright handsome Brando himself was at that point. Culturally, we seem to remember the older, heavier, weirder Brando. But here, in Listen To Me Marlon, we get the whole Marlon Brando. It’s like we’re listening to his most private thoughts for a little over 95 minutes , and it’s really wonderful.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter