Saturday, July 25, 2015

Stevan Riley's LISTEN TO ME MARLON brings us Marlon Brando in -- mostly -- his own words

Who knew? Marlon Brando, just as did Richard M. Nixon, enjoyed audio-taping himself and his words of wisdom. He also, as we learn right up front in the new and pretty damned fascinating documentary, LISTEN TO ME MARLON, had himself "digitalized" for posterity (and probably for lots of money, though the late actor doesn't go into that aspect). This information -- the theme of which set off one of last year's more interesting movies (Robin Wright at The Congress) -- makes the documentary seem initially very au courant. Yet it's the history, the terrific archival visuals, and the sometimes bizarre audio tapes we hear that combine to make the movie a don't-miss for any Brando fan and at the very least watchable for those of us who found the actor alternately appealing and appalling.

The fellow who has put together this Brando-fest -- Stevan Riley, shown at left, who acted as director, writer and editor (and excels at the latter: this is a very well assembled documentary) -- has gifted the ongoing Marlon machine with an even more marketable and newsworthy film than the recent doc on Miss Monroe has done for the always-in-gear Marilyn machine. What Listen to Me Marlon offers, however, is a kind of integrity rare in movie-icon documentaries, due to the in-his-own-voice-and-words monologue by the late star himself (shown on poster, top, and below).

Sure, Brando's words are at times self-serving, as to be expected, but there is also honesty and probing to be found. Further, the film gives us a surprising inclusive look at nearly the full career of the man, from his own, rather singular perspective. (Some films you might want to learn more about are short-shrifted -- Reflections in a Golden Eye, for one -- but most of the important work is here.)

Yes, the guy was a major narcissist. On the other hand, he had a lot to be narcissistic about: a great face, full of expression and emotion, and a gorgeous body he knew how to use. Only his voice -- high and nasal -- proved a drawback. He either never had vocal training or didn't care to use it. Two out of three ain't bad, and Brando's early career, shown here quite fully, is still the high mark of the male American movie actor. No one has yet surpassed it.

How he became who he became -- via parents, acting teachers and his innate intelligence-- is shown us, along with career highlights, behind the scenes footage, and a wealth of archival film, much of which I don't think has surfaced till now.

This is often a heady mix. As the actor's career and personal life begin their nose dive, and then that career restarts, we see bits of pieces of children (above and below) and an ex-wife. At times, his words border on the loony -- as did his life and, sadly, some of his later performances.

But we come away from the movie seeing that life and even those performances as part of the complete Brando journey -- which has never seemed so strange, personal, rich and resonant as it does here.

Much of the movie is indeed Brando speaking, but inter-cut now and again are bits and pieces of various media mavens giving their "take" on the actor and what he had gotten up to. The contrast is noticeable and shows the media up for what it too often is: worthless. (We also see how easily and delightedly Brando could charm that media, particularly the ladies -- at least in his early, hunky years.)

As fascinating as the movie often is, it is also hagiography. And yet I think that even those of us who go into the film imagining Brando as over-rated may come out of it a bit more convinced of his place in the pantheon.

Listen to Me Marlon -- a Passion Pictures production coming to us via Showtime and Showtime Documentary Films and running 97 minutes -- opens this Wednesday, July 29, at Film Forum in New York City, and in Los Angeles on Friday July 31, at The Landmark.

No comments: