Friday, 1 May 2015

HOT DOCS 2015 - LISTEN TO ME MARLON - Review By Greg Klymkiw *****

Listen To Me Marlon (2015)
Dir. Stevan Riley

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Superlatives declaring something's the best are a dime a dozen. I've made more than a few in my lifetime, but one I'll affix a substantially greater value to is this: We will never see an actor as great as Marlon Brando. Ever. Nobody can touch the guy. When he's been at his laziest, he's still managed to blow the best work away like so many puffs on the three little pigs' houses - including the one made of brick. When he's been at his best, nobody, but nobody can catch up. He was always ahead of the rest.

Listen To Me Marlon is as great a filmed biographical portrait of Brando as we could ever imagine. During his life, he recorded hundreds upon hundreds of hours of audio tape, none of it having ever been heard before. Director Stevan Riley has poured over this wealth of material and assembled it with an astonishing collection of film clips, home movies, archival footage and a few interview sequences; giving us the closest we'll get to a living, breathing autobiography of the man himself.

Brando's tapes include his deepest thoughts and musings, but also include an endless number of self-hypnosis tapes. The man knew how to use his voice - so much so he was able to use it, lay it down upon reel-to-reel and listen to those mellifluous tones and words as a form of self-therapy. Using a blend of stock footage, including makeup tests and other behind-the-scenes footage which show Brando as himself, often at his moat vulnerable, we hear him speak slowly, rhythmically and ever-so hypnotically:

"Now let your mind drift back, way back in time, to a time when you were very young, when you used to put on your clothes, very early in the morning, when everyone was sleeping. Walk down the sidewalk and sit underneath that big elm tree back in Omaha, with the wind blowing the light, the shadow of leaves. It is like a wonderful soft dream, that soft wind calling. That's a wind that you can trust. You are the memories."

And what memories we get. Blending a variety of related media to certain topics, we're afforded the stuff of human drama in ways which inform Brando's genius, but also betray everything which haunts him as a person and artist. For example, Brando reveals on tape the sad memories of his mean, absent father and his tender, loving mother and the booze that drove his old man to pummel everything and everyone around him, and the same booze that his Mom used to ease the pain until finally, she had the courage to leave and the cowardice to abandon her child.

These are, of course, incredibly heartbreaking words, but even more so when director Riley cuts in a rare piece of news footage involving Brando in his hotel room in the hours before he'd win his Academy Award for On the Waterfront and his father, old and hard, sitting in an armchair, responds to the reporter's query as to whether he was proud of his son. Chillingly, he says: "As an actor, no. As a man, yes."

The elder Brando goes on to reveal his thoughts about Marlon's childhood and the camera picks up the son's incredulous look as his father talks. When the reporter asks Marlon if he'd care to defend himself, he waves it off and declares he could beat his father with one hand tied behind his back. Brando's tapes then sadly reveal the public act he and his Dad engaged in - a loving father and adoring son. "It was a lot of hypocrisy," says Brando. "When what you are as a child is unwanted then you look for an identity that's wholly acceptable."

Later on, we hear tapes Brando made of Bernardo Bertolucci talking about how he wanted Marlon to go ever-deeper with autobiographical details in the role of Paul in Last Tango in Paris. Brando expresses his anger about this, but also his acquiescence. Riley then offers a montage of clips from the film including Paul's monologue about his father and mother - s scene that's always been heart-wrenching, but takes on added emotional resonance in this biographical portrait as the "character" Brando plays repeats several "memories" which are virtually identical to the "real ones".

It knocks you flat on your ass - as does the whole film by how it shares the aforementioned approach through Brando's early years, his stardom, his adherence to the "method" and the brilliance of acting teacher Stella Adler, his "lost" years during the 60s in a string of flops in which he was scapegoated for their failure, his comeback period in the 70s, his activism with civil rights and Native American issues and his final period of laziness post-Apocalypse Now. Here, even Brando admits how it became all about the money. We even hear him confess how he demanded his character in The Formula be equipped with a hearing aid so the lines of the script could be fed to him as he repeated his dialogue, almost by rote.

Finally, we're led into the later stages of Brando's life when tragedy struck home big time and his children became involved in murder and drug abuse. We hear Brando's tapes both fearing and lamenting a repetition in his own life by engaging in the sins of his father, as a father. This is all juxtaposed with the harrowing news footage of Brando weeping over the deep misfortune of his children's actions, especially as they related to his own failure as a father.

Almost like a refrain or exclamatory narrative beat, we hear Brando talk about how he hired computer experts in the 80s to digitize his whole head as he delivered a variety of speeches from films, plays and literature as well as how he rendered every conceivable facial expression - not just for posterity, but in the event his strong belief that actors will become useless in the digital age comes to fruition and that he can live on, virtually, as an actor long after his death. The eerie dislocated, digitized head of Brando with a reverberating voice that's all his own, appears throughout the documentary.

If anything, though, the film ultimately acknowledges that Brando's gifts, which live on in his body of work, will provide far more immortality than the strange disembodied digital images which, one hopes, will never be used beyond the parameters of this stunning, loving and gorgeously crafted biographical documentary.

It moved me to tears.


The Canadian Premiere of Listen To Me Marlon is at Hot Docs 2015. Info HERE.