Listen to Me Marlon (2015)

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“The face can hide many things.”

Marlon Brando was meant to be an actor. Some might even suggest a higher calling steered him in the direction. Either way, his devilish good looks, eyes of a tiger, and meticulously precise inflection all added up to an otherworldly and masterful performer. He’s hailed by many as the best ever for a reason. The legend was vulnerable though, having flops and disappointments and a mounting disinterest in the trade as his fame skyrocketed. As outsiders we ask how that could be. Listen to Me Marlon responds to our line of questioning the way that it should. This is Brando, as told by Brando, and starring only Brando. It’s one thing to watch a biography, yet this ingenious picture is another breed and species entirely. Through poetic narration and scrupulously edited images, Listen to Me Marlon becomes an audiobook given a license to live on the screen. Journeying into his mind proves to be an intensely personal and riveting self-reflection.

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An unappeasable father. A drunk mother. Jettisoned to a military academy as a child. Brando’s upbringing was not that of a white picket fence. The early years were rough, molding a man who physically matched the description to a tight fit tee. A troubled childhood did what it typically does, and by that I mean lend a hand in shaping a troubled man. Fascinatingly, Listen to Me Marlon goes to trial against itself and lets the accused make a testimony. Granted it is shaped by the filmmaker, but these are still Brando’s words, and we hear them sometimes loud, others unclear, always pragmatic. Letting him build a case opposing celebrity culture feels more like an indictment on the influences during his youth than his hermetic behavior might let on. This is “Being Marlon Brando.” We’re literally is his head, seeing out through his eyes by way of his hypnotic voice.

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The amazing thing about Stevan Riley’s documentary, up there with the best of the year, is how it matches the cockiness and vulnerability of its subject. Everything is built off of unprecedented access to hundreds of hours of Brando’s recorded journals and the authenticity blots the picture like spilled ink, signature notwithstanding. At one point the actor says, “you have to know your subject,” and who could exemplify more knowing power about the man than himself? That’s what makes the movie. All of the insight comes together in a web, spun by a hidden recluse storyteller, perched there waiting to catch us by surprise. And how can we not let its legs wrap around and intertwine us through pure dedication and drive? You think 2013’s Finding Vivian Maier, a film about a secretively prolific photographer, took time to sort through? Nu-uh. Try this out for sorts. Listen to Me Marlon is cinema, and shows the power of the craft, specifically what can be accomplished in the editing bay. Give a painter a few hours and they can make a portrait. Give Stevan Riley enough time and he’ll assemble a damn near visage.

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We can’t truly ever know a celebrity. Often they’re defaced, embellished, exaggerated to an unthinkable extant. Listen to Me Marlon ignores the trend of our popcorn climate and coolly lets itself bunker down and hole up. It’s sprite, somber, and surprisingly smart material from the lips of man who looks like more of a bruising boxer than an intellectual. As always, things can be deceiving and not meet the eye. Riley’s movie doesn’t have much power outside of the story’s obvious intrusive nature, and the footage doesn’t always add emotional depth, but to his credit it all comes together tidily, if not a little too much so. Brando’s recordings suggest a very basic understanding of acting. To him the equation goes: Everyone’s an actor + Actors are liars = Everyone is a liar. And that’s true. Listen to Me Marlon might not build upwards, but it always grows in reach, and the platitudes of its narrator resonate so deeply because it is brave enough to outstretch its arms and feel around out of curiosity.

 “Everything you do…make it real as you can.”

Rating: 4 out of 5

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