‘Listen to Me Marlon’ Makes It Clear That for Marlon Brando, Acting Was Surviving

Marlon Brando's face offers various sorts of "stages", as he puts it, acting as a character or asserting a truth, showing that he is cocky or wounded or fearful.

“Listen,” says Marlon Brando’s voice. “Let me tell you something that I did. I had my head digitized.” Here you see what he means, a blue half-semblance of Brando’s face in his late period, with apparently long hair, his famous cheekbones in dissolving, kind of freefalling motion, so that the portrait resembles one of those old Pin Art kits. “They’ve got it all on digital, an actor, but it’s not gonna be real. It’s inside a computer. So maybe this is the swan song for all of us.”

Unsettling and provocative, the moment serves as an apt introduction to Listen to Me Marlon. Under the artist’s own voice — specifically, “hundreds of hours of private audio recordings, none of which have been heard by the public until now” — Stevan Riley’s documentary cuts and pastes together movie clips, television interviews, photos, and other footage. The effects of this mix are complicated, at times intimate and rambling, at other times too contrived or beguilingly coherent.

The film’s basic impulse to order is familiar. Art tends to make sense of the chaos of life, even as it might raise questions concerning that sense-making process. Here such questions are set up by Brando, who famously thought hard about his own art, how movies and reality overlap, how acting might realize or complicate something like truth. The opening voice recording poses a distinction between what’s “digital” and what’s “real”, what’s inside a computer and what’s a “swan song”.

Marlon Brando’s digitized face

The life and art that persist in Listen to Me Marlon recall the structure of Tupac: Resurrection, Lauren Lazin’s evocation of another philosophical artist, a reluctant legend who also contemplated his effects, his creativity and mortality, his social and political purpose. Riley’s film combines audio and visual fragments to form a portrait of a lifelong struggle, beginning with a troubled childhood (a violent father and an alcoholic mother) and leading to fractured relationships and lost children. (It includes a brief section on Brando’s participation in civil rights protests, his alliance with Martin Luther King Jr., his horror at the assassination.)

As brilliant as Brando might have been, he describes himself as uncertain as often as he is confident. Acting, the film suggests, offered Brando a means to both self-discipline and self-exploration. Early in the documentary, Stella Adler of the Actors Studio asserts the grand potential of acting, delineating the methods by which the artist might make truth visible for his audience and, not incidentally, for himself. “Control over your lives begins with this class,” she declares.

For Brando, the relationship among these ideas was ever shifting, a function of ideals and disappointments, an evolving faith and experience. It sounds as if he took Adler’s lessons to heart when he describes his break with earlier stars like Cagney, Gable, and Gary Cooper, “a particular kind of acting [where] you knew who you were going to get.” He rejects this “absurd” approach, seeking instead to express a “reality, realness carried by an actor to achieve the truth.”

He brought his own genius to refining this “modern” stage method for film. “When the camera’s close on you,” he says, “the face becomes the stage.” Image after image make this case: Brando’s face, so vivid, so utterly moving, in The Men, On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire or The Wild One. In his early career, when he was the youngest actor to win the Oscar for Best Actor, the TV footage suggests that he too was moved, that he was honored and hopeful. This youthfulness, this optimism, changes, of course, and the film follows Brando’s thinking as he works to “achieve the truth”.

This notion of “the truth” remains elusive and vexed, eventually sliding into a source of some exasperation and grief. Even as he begins to see his work as part of a commercial enterprise, Brando presses himself and his audience. “You want to stop that movement from the popcorn to the mouth,” he says, “To get people to stop chewing. The truth will do that.” Here the recording becomes as fractured as his digital face. “Damn, damn, damn, damn,” his voice mutters, “When it’s right, you feel it in your bones.”

He has this effect in The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris, the film submits, as Bertolucci observes: “Marlon was invading the character of Paul.” Still, and as much as Brando wants to believe in “the truth”, he grows increasingly frustrated — first with celebrity, then with routine and low expectations, and also, with the ease of his experience, the many opportunities, whether with women or with roles. “We’re businessmen, we’re merchants and there is no art,” he says, almost as if he’s channeling his improvisation as Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.

As he decides to retire early — or at least to work only for money and not under the guise of art — he says he means to “pursue other interests that I have.” These involve Tahiti, of course, where he projects onto “the Tahitians” a simplicity and beauty that he can’t find elsewhere. On his island, he declares, he can escape the business of acting, which he comes to see not as a means to “the truth”, but its opposite. “Lying for a living that’s what acting is,” he says, “All I’ve learned to do is be aware of the process. You’re saying something you don’t mean or refraining from saying something you really do mean.”

This question of whether or not anyone is listening might be yours more than his. Listen to Me Marlon crafts a chronology, linking language with pictures that appear to illustrate, but these connections can feel forced. The lighter touch sequences are more effective, loosely arranged candid photos with his kids or his pets, awkward interviews, seductive exchanges with pretty girls. His life choices, of course, have costs. When at last Brando’s children — Cheyenne and Christian — meet with tragedy, he’s undone, in tears on the witness stand at Christian’s murder trial and in front of a press gathering as he fronts that Cheyenne is doing well enough.

In these moments, Brando’s face offers another sort of stage, wounded and fearful, devastated and still, perhaps, seeking the truth. The film’s excavation process ends here, even as it offers up the man’s words on the act of dying, and predictably runs the scene where Vito Corleone dies with his grandson. Brando’s swan song is, after all, greater than this, dissolves beyond digital or other efforts at remembering.

RATING 8 / 10