Listen to Me Marlon (Showtime, NR)

Marlon 75It is a very human documentary, and almost a spiritual experience more akin to Malick’s Tree of Life than any biopic I’ve ever seen.





Marlon 500

Stevan Riley’s Listen to Me Marlon gets its title from a self-hypnosis tape made by Marlon Brando. Never before heard by the public, Riley has used over 200 hours of audio recordings by Marlon Brando throughout his life, and fashioned them into a documentary on cinema’s most influential actor. The tapes range in topics from his perspective on acting, to his turbulent relationship with his father and his attitude on certain roles he played. They are often accompanied by footage of famous movies of his, interview footage, behind the scenes of some of his greatest films (including one instance of in-color behind scenes footage of Brando on the set of On the Waterfront) and even a digitized version of himself is featured throughout the film.

In the 1980s, Marlon Brando had his face digitized by veteran cinematographer and VFX expert Scott Billups. Billups used cutting edge software at the time called Cyberware (apparently they used the same technology for Terminator 2). Marlon Brando—who was an early tech enthusiast among other things—firmly believed that this technology was the future for acting. In an early part of the film, he shares his belief that eventually actors will act inside of computers. “You watch” he says as if to his fellow actors, “this is the swan song of us all.” He may be right as we now have actors like Willem Dafoe and Ellen Page doing motion caption performances for video games that imitate cinematic storytelling.

This digitized face of Marlon Brando, who looks strikingly like him (but also a bit like Power Ranger’s Zordon, if I’m honest), appears throughout the documentary. It would seem creepy, if it didn’t seem so respectful to who Brando was. In an interview, Riley shares his decision to include the digitized Brando as a way to give Brando a final performance as he predicted.

In the editing process some very bold choices are made. When Brando talks about his hatred for his abusive father, there are cuts to Brando’s infamous performance as Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire. Much of the film works in this style, connecting themes of his life to his famous roles insinuating some sort of connection. If this wasn’t executed so well, some might find it cheap to make such connections. Personally, I find it to be in the spirit of method acting, the style Marlon Brando made famous, and that makes it quite appropriate.

There is a particularly memorable part in the film that speaks of wanting to “change the motion picture to something nearer to the truth.” Watching Listen to Me Marlon is an experience that feels like living inside his mind. Although you don’t walk away with a clear and defined understanding on the history of Marlon Brando, it seems certainly true to who he was. It is a very human documentary, and almost a spiritual experience more akin to Malick’s Tree of Life than any biopic I’ve ever seen. If Marlon Brando wanted to create a form of cinema closer to the truth, he’d certainly be proud of Riley’s efforts. | Cait Lore

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