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Sleeper of the Week: ‘Listen to Me Marlon’

Sleeper of the Week: 'Listen to Me Marlon'

Sleeper of the Week takes a film that only few critics have seen and shines some light on it.

“Listen to Me Marlon”
Dir: Stevan Riley
Criticwire Average: A-

Stevan Riley’s new documentary “Listen to Me Marlon” attempts to be the definitive portrait of the late Marlon Brando, one of the greatest actors of all time. “Listen to Me Marlon” consists entirely of private audio tapes the actor recorded in his home, in therapy, during press interviews, and even during hypnosis. Riley intersperses these recordings with archival footage and film clips, eschewing the tired “talking head” documentary style completely. Riley functions primarily as a curator and an editor for the film, and he uses his unprecedented access very well, but whether or not this is in any way “definitive,” or if such an ideal can ever be reached, is left up to you. Some critics declare “Listen to Me Marlon” a profound masterpiece, while others are left miffed at certain sections and overall found it lacking in many ways. But any fan of Brando, or anyone with an interest in the history of acting, will most likely get some pleasure from hearing the man talk and talk about anything and everything. In fact, the best thing that can be said about Riley’s film is that he allows the actor to speak for himself.

More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:

David Edelstein, Vulture

Stevan Riley’s “Listen to Me Marlon” is the greatest, most searching documentary of an actor ever put on film, and it’s no coincidence that it’s about film’s greatest and most searching actor. The words are Brando’s — taken from hundreds of hours of audiotapes he made over the decades as well as home movies and interview footage — accompanied by photos, thrilling film clips, a fluid procession of resonant objects from his life, and a sort of cyberlife mask of the actor speaking. What he says confirms that however crazy he became, Brando was wise to the source of his art. No one could think so believably on-camera or find more poetic and surprising ways to show the progress of those thoughts on his face. But being “in the moment” cost him. He was a damaged child, abandoned by his mother (the town drunk) and physically abused by his father. His success gave him the power to escape — into sex and food, to his property in Tahiti — but the compulsion to escape can be its own kind of prison. In the end, he understood the tragedy of his life, and Riley’s film is the worthiest epitaph imaginable. Read more.

Calum Marsh, The Village Voice

It is astonishing, first of all, that this movie even exists: Drawing from several hundred hours of previously unheard reminiscences and memoranda self-recorded by Marlon Brando over many years, “Listen to Me Marlon” is a documentary of what can only be described as unprecedented access — to no less than the deceased subject himself, here alchemically reanimated to narrate his own story. Brando’s legacy was diminished toward the end of his career by a notorious and often highly publicized obstinacy, reducing the actor in the popular imagination to a caricature of pugnacious misbehavior. Without the faintest trace of hagiography, “Listen to Me Marlon” restores to Brando his rightful genius. But the film is so much more than its headline-grabbing conceit may suggest. The director, Stevan Riley, approaches documentary form with the same ebullience and vigor that defined Brando’s method acting, whipping his archival footage into a frenzy of sound and movement. The result is electrifying. Read more.

Chris Evangelista, Cut Print Film

There are no talking heads here (well, okay, there is one talking head – Brando’s, in animated 3D form that the actor had created in 80s with Cyberware software); instead, Brando himself is narrating this tour through his renowned, tumultuous life. “Listen to Me Marlon” joins the ranks of recent documentaries like “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” “Sinatra: All or Nothing at All,” and “Amy” that buck the tired-and-true documentary format of people sitting in front of blank backdrops recounting history, and instead lets the history unfold for itself in a more organic, absorbing way. The result here is stunning and mesmerizing, really unlike any documentary created before. In a sense, Riley becomes a necromancer or medium giving a séance that’s the real deal, summoning Brando from the dead to give us an engrossing, near-hypnotic tour through his life. Read more.

Manohla Dargis, The New York Times

While its subject means that “Listen to Me” is easy to like, Mr. Riley’s shaping of Brando’s words can make the movie, every so often, difficult to fully embrace. Mr. Riley’s handling of the fatal 1990 shooting of Dag Drollet by Christian Brando, Brando’s son, is especially unfortunate, and the use of some tabloid-like news material sleazes up the movie a touch. (Mr. Drollet was the boyfriend of Brando’s daughter Cheyenne.) Mr. Riley’s use of a disembodied, floating Brando head created from digital scans that the actor made in the 1980s is initially amusing, but it’s a needless distraction, as are the cutaways to murkily lit, messily appointed rooms that are actually re-creations of those in his Mulholland Drive mansion. Brando doesn’t need that kind of embellishment, and neither does this movie. As his admirer James Dean probably knew all too well, Brando was a true rebel, partly because he thought being a star was absurd and partly because, as clip after clip shows, he always had a cause, whether it was civil rights, black power, Native American sovereignty or his own independence. At its most satisfying, “Listen to Me Marlon” brings you close to a man whose legacy seems to have been tarnished less by his widely reported (and misreported) actions than by an entertainment press that punishes those who refuse to play the game. Brando found the game ludicrous. But he played along until he didn’t, and while he occasionally suffered the consequences, along with too many fools, his work outlasts it all. Read more.

Matt Prigge, Metro

“Listen to Me Marlon” is far from a definitive portrait, and it skips over underrated films (notably Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Burn!”) and even his lone directing work, the Western “One-Eyed Jacks,” whose crazed production foresaw the calamities that would tar many subsequent Brando films. It’s a subjective portrait that tries to capture the point of view of someone who seemed to be a mystery even to himself — while, mind you, kowtowing to his protective family. As such, sometimes subjectivity becomes mere skating around an issue, if not avoiding them altogether. But it’s not a new official look at him. Instead it’s another key piece to a vast puzzle. Read more.

Mike D’Angelo, The A.V. Club

Listen To Me Marlon” suffers from an atrocious score that frequently sounds like it belongs in a useless Oscar montage, and it doesn’t reveal much about Brando that cinephiles don’t already know. But the man himself is endlessly fascinating, so it’s hard to fault a movie that ditches anything extraneous (especially talking-head testimonials) in order to let him tell his own story in his own words. Despite his on-screen reputation as a Method mumbler, he was an articulate interview subject; at one point in the film, he describes his professional goal thusly: “You want to stop that movement from the popcorn to the mouth. Get people to stop chewing. The truth will do that.” And while there’s nothing terribly juicy on the audio cassettes — or at least the excerpts that were permitted to be used — there’s something deeply poignant about hearing older Brando’s attempts at self-hypnosis, which he employed in an effort to lose weight. “Just think of all the good things that you like,” Brando tells himself. “Like apple pie, and ice cream, and brownies in milk. But.” And he pauses for a moment, just as he might when delivering a scripted line. “You must not eat them quite so often.” Read more.

Richard Brody, The New Yorker

The very existence of these tapes is a miracle, but the film, at nearly every turn, undercuts the wonder and turns it into a cut-and-paste job of a profile-like biography. Riley assembles a soundtrack of snippets of Brando, putting them through a chronological forced march from his childhood to his last years. To fill the screen, the director assembles archival footage of Brando, including (apparently) home movies, clips from movies, filmed interviews, and television news reports. Stock footage and photographs are used to evoke particular places, people, or times, and some original filming is used to suggest memories or events for which no stock footage is available. There’s also a tiny bit of shooting done in a studio to suggest the experience of listening to the tapes themselves, and these brief shots come closest to capturing the thrill of discovering the recordings. There are moments where tapes, with Brando’s handwriting on them, are seen. Though the shots are undistinguished and uninflected, they at least put on-screen the subject of the film: the tapes themselves. Read more.

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